BOOK REVIEW / The Aix files

A spate of publishing accompanies the Cezanne show at the Tate Gallery: James Hall provides a guide to some of the best

James Hall
Sunday 18 February 1996 00:02 GMT

CZANNE is the thinking man's Impressionist. Not that the other Impressionists were thoughtless. It's just that they were quick thinkers with fast reflexes, always alert to a new fashion or theme. They were street-wise, whereas the "hermit of Aix" embodies sturdier sorts of folk wisdom.

Instead of chic metropolitan hang-outs, he gives us deserted back-streets in provincial towns; instead of flashy poppies, waterlilies and sunflowers he offers quarries, pines and Mont Saint-Victoire; instead of bars stacked with absinthe he shows kitchen tables laden with apples and unlabelled wine; instead of prostitutes and glitterati, he introduces us to Madame Cezanne and his gardener; instead of stylish daytrippers and tourists, he homes in on featureless bathers.

Despite all this, and despite being a prematurely bald introvert who had a chronic fear of being unexpectedly touched, Cezanne wasn't unworldly. He was worldly in a different, but equally aggressive, way: the son of a self-made man who owned the only bank in Aix. His father desperately wanted Paul to follow in his footsteps, but having reluctantly agreed to his wish to become an artist, gave him a meagre allowance. Ironically, though, his son brought to his art the meticulousness and thrift of a banker: every last brushstroke counts, and has to be accounted for.

When Cezanne painted still lifes, he often used coins to prop up pieces of fruit; his technique turns brushstrokes into a kind of brightly coloured coinage. He is half-alchemist, half-capitalist. His slow accumulations of distinct, parallel brushstrokes transmute worthless reality into stacks of coin-like forms. No wonder that when Gauguin started to use a similar method, Cezanne accused him of stealing it.

One of the finest and simplest still lifes, painted in 1877-8, consists of seven apples on a flat surface - and that's all. Where other artists might mix fruit in a bowl, and only give you the vaguest sense of how many and what kind, Cezanne leaves you in no doubt. This is the aesthetics of the counting house. By a quirk of fate, this gem was later bought by John Maynard Keynes, and was hanging on his wall when he wrote A Treatise on Money.

All the same, I don't think the idea that Cezanne was costing the earth will catch on. Judging by the books that have been issued to coincide with the Cezanne exhibition at the Tate Gallery in London, he is beyond any sort of criticism. Since 1990, Cezanne scholarship seems to have stalled. The late Eighties saw a flurry of ground-breaking exhibitions: the expressive and heavily impastoed early work was rehabilitated at the Royal Academy in 1988; the psychological complexity of the Bathers was explored in Basle in 1989; Cezanne's affinity with Poussin was scrutinised in Edinburgh in 1990. As far as I know, little has happened since then.

The Tate Gallery's catalogue makes no claim to originality. It is professionally produced, but dry and derivative. Francoise Cachin and Joseph Rishel explain in a brief introduction that they have no new interpretations, and will simply summarise old insights. A few comments by Cezanne are followed by a compendium of Cezanne criticism over the years: broadly, this moves from the mid-century view of him as a classicist and "pure painter" to his current incarnation as an emotional basket-case who needed therapy, Prozac and better sex.

The catalogue entries are divided - perversely - into decades rather than periods, while the even-handed selection shows how spectacularly uneven he was throughout his career. Useful as all the documentation is, I would have preferred some shape and argument. This user-unfriendly tome is definitely only for die-hards.

To be fair, the Tate has also produced a useful little book by Paul Smith, Interpreting Cezanne. After making the now statutary academic points about the subjectivity of all interpretations, Smith deftly puts Cezanne's stylistic developments into the context of his own time. I wish I'd had this book when I was a student. His discussion of Cezanne's mature style is exemplary. In seeking to explain why table-tops often seem discontinuous when they disappear behind an object and re-emerge at another point, Smith shows a diagram from a contemporary psychology book in which the same thing happens. And just when Cezanne starts to sound nauseatingly normal, Smith pulls a psycho-sexual rabbit out of the hat: "Cezanne's reserve about touching and being touched enters his pictures of the human figure."

A lively counterpart to Smith's book is Cezanne: The First Modern Painter, in the New Horizons series. These busily designed pocket-sized paperbacks combine succinct analysis with interesting biographical material. They overuse details, but the four sets of shifty eyes from various self-portraits are very striking. At the back, there's a handy digest of letters and criticism from the last hundred years.

For a more measured general introduction, Richard Verdi's Cezanne is recommended. Verdi is always sound, but his strong point is Cezanne's relationship with the old masters: he was, after all, the organiser of the Cezanne / Poussin exhibition. In a fine passage comparing Cezanne's portrayals of apples to similar still lifes by other artists, he writes that, in contrast to Courbet, Cezanne's apples "appear to engender space rather than inhabit it". Rather than being set apart, their form and colour impregnates the surrounding air, and makes everything vibrate.

Two far bigger books sound good in theory, but are dull in practice. Richard Kendall's Cezanne By Himself belongs to a well-produced series in which the letters of various Impressionists are reprinted chronologically along with relevant artworks. Previous books on van Gogh and Gauguin have been illuminating, but this is a let-down because Cezanne's letters are so tedious. He hated verbal explanation, and gave next to nothing away until the 1890s when he got his first searching admirers.

Pavel Machotka's sumptuous Landscape into Art is a slightly ludicrous labour of love. Machotka has photographed sites where Cezanne worked. This has been done before, but never in colour and never in such exhaustive detail. The book is interesting to flick through, but not to read. Machotka believes that Cezanne criticism has become too subjective, and he hopes to reconnect the art with the motifs. The sites "are pregnant with implication. In them, we can see the composition and colour balance of the paintings ... we can anticipate that Cezanne will hold on to their clear structure." This is the wisdom of hindsight, and his book is a predictably wishy-washy "compare and contrast".

Machotka is peeved by modern interventions: "The apartment that spans the space between the dovecot and the farmhouse has altered the site for the worse"; "Such changes may be the product of a changed economy, and there is no point in regretting them. But, for the sake of Cezanne studies, one might wish that the undergrowth in certain spots were tended."

Yet this fogeyism surely isn't true to the spirit of Cezanne. Cezanne's fascination lies in the way that nature itself - through all sorts of geological, biological and meteorological changes - sanctions the transformations enacted in his own art. The banker's son yearned to be a force of nature too.

! The Tate's Cezanne catalogue costs pounds 50 (hardback) in bookshops, pounds 25 (paperback) with tickets at the gallery; 'Interpreting Cezanne' by Paul Smith, Tate Publications pounds 7.95.

'Cezanne: The First Modern Painter' by Michael Hoog, Thames & Hudson pounds 6.95.

'Cezanne' by Richard Verdi, Thames & Hudson pounds 6.95.

'Cezanne By Himself' ed Richard Kendall, Little, Brown pounds 19.99.

'Cezanne: Landscape into Art' by Pavel Machotka, Yale University Press pounds 25.

Also currently available: 'Paul Cezanne: The Bathers' by Mary Louise Krumrine (Thames & Hudson pounds 39.95); 'Paul Cezanne: A Life in Art' by Isabelle Cahn (Cassell pounds 25); 'Lost Earth: A Life of Cezanne' by Philip Callow (Allison & Busby pounds 19.99).

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