Runs 12th October 2011 – 26th February 2012 at the Musee du Luxembourg, Paris
If you think of Paul Cezanne, you undoubtedly think of Provence. Looking at his Mont Sainte Victoire, you can almost hear the cicadas; you can almost feel the violence of the sun, the dryness of the heat. Cezanne, the ‘Master of Aix’, is best known for his paintings of the Provencal countryside and its light. But at 21, the young painter moved to Paris, encouraged by his friend Emile Zola, in order to ‘make it’ in the art world. Indeed, he spent more of his professional life in the Ile-de-France than he did in the south. But however much he ‘needed’ Paris to succeed, Cezanne was often up in arms against established art, which the Parisian ‘Salon’ typified. This conflicting relationship with Paris is reflected in this new exhibition, which shows how Cezanne – often described as a regionalist painter – developed his style in the French capital.
So what did Cezanne paint during his many years in Paris? Not the city, if you were wondering. At this exhibition you will not find a ‘portrait of a city’ in a traditional sense; you will find none of the urban iconography of Degas, Pissarro or Renoir. There are only three paintings of Paris intra muros at the Luxembourg Gallery, and they show very ordinary streets. The ‘Rue des Saules’ for example – a depiction of an empty street in Montmartre – could very well be taken for a street in any provincial town. It is an image of loneliness. Unlike Zola, whose novels portray Paris with near-perfect realism, Cezanne paints the street as though it were a natural landscape, focusing on the textures of the stone, the stark winter light on the walls, and certainly not including any passers-by.
Aside from the few representations of city streets, Cezanne chose unusual subjects for his Parisian paintings. Rather than describe the wide, beautiful, tree-studded Grands Boulevards, the Invalides, or the Eiffel Tower, Cezanne found inspiration in fruit and fish, of which you will see examples of still-lifes on display at the Luxembourg Gallery. Another unusual subject is the found in a painting entitled ‘The Eternal Feminine’, a disturbing image of a nude woman with red eyes and flowing hair, set above a dark crowd of male figures. The men lean towards the woman, and yet they look away, as though in fear or disgust. This image of a woman as temptation, as a compelling creature of frightening fascination, might reveal some of Cezanne’s own feelings about the capital – it is like a beautiful, desirable woman, who he wishes to ‘conquer’ but who frightens and disgusts him.
Surprisingly, perhaps, given the title of this exhibition, a large number of the paintings are of natural landscapes. Cezanne spent much of his time in the more rural areas on the outskirts of Paris, such as Pontoise, Auvers and Issy-les-Moulineaux. ‘The Bridge of Maincy’ shows a bridge crossing a reflective river running through woodland. The calm greens of the foliage and the deep darkness of the muddy water seemingly breathes the solace that Cezanne must have found in the towns surrounding the busy metropolis. A perfect capturing of the light here foreshadows what would become Cezanne’s most lasting stamp on modern painting, and what led Picasso to call him ‘the Father of us all’.