You could go so far as to say that Cézanne's subject matter is as radically and shockingly insignificant as you could possibly find. Two poor men sit across from each other playing cards in an anonymous café in the south of France. Cézanne would have known the scene. He would have witnessed it again and again. It is utterly of its time and of its place.
The men are almost motionless, almost sculpturally rigid – Cézanne often painted human beings in rigid poses, as if they were as much a still life of a bowl of fruit as living, breathing human beings. Nor was this scene chanced upon once. Cézanne worked at different versions of it again and again, and several fully finished examples are in major institutions around the world. One of them is at the Courtauld Institute in London, and an entire exhibition was devoted to it just last year, comparing it with some of the other versions and appraising it beside various preparatory drawings. Other versions are in Paris and New York.
The subject matter was hugely important to Cézanne, the raising up of the common man – but so was the way he treated it. Such is the subtlety with which Cézanne has moved through his variations upon the colour brown, that you feel as if the men are tonally embedded in that café environment, as if they are knitted into it or grow from it, quite naturally.
Finally, everything seems to melt and to merge into everything else. There is a wonderful timelessness about the scene. This card game could go on forever. No one is about to lay down the final card. And in its extraordinarily appealing backwater serenity, it seems to epitomise French café life in the second half of the 19th century. Nothing can disturb it or touch it. It reeks subtly of a certain kind of nostalgia, opening a scruffy, squeaky door to an entire gone world. Only money can buy such humdrum splendour these days.
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