Friday, February 16, 2018

Cézanne @ National Portrait Gallery London

Paul Cezanne, Self Portrait with Bowler Hat, 1885-86
I was surprised to see that the Cezanne exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery was hailed as the exhibition of the decade. It was a small, somewhat conventional exhibition of fascinating paintings, but I didn’t notice anything particularly outstanding   
Paul Cezanne, Artist's Father Reading L'Evénement, 1866
Cezanne’s portraits, in many ways, resemble his better known still lives: the concerns are similar, the composition is the same strange awkward presentation, the figure looking as though he or she is sliding forward, on the verge of falling out of the frame, or ill-at-ease popping its head into the side of the frame. In the same way that the still lives are unforgettable for the dimensionality and the life that Cezanne gives the dead objects, these portraits resonate well beyond the frame and the moment of viewing.

Paul Cezanne, Madame Cezanne in a Yellow Chair, 1888-90

I wondered as I walked around whether Cezanne had some kind of social anxiety disorder. The initial temptation is to compare the paintings to those of Manet in particular – and side by side with Manet’s famous street people— see how Cezanne’s portraits have nothing to do with the world outside of the relationship between the painter and the sitter. There is absolutely no hint of, let alone comment on the same social world that is the context and meaning of all Manet’s portraits, Neither is there any sense of who the sitter is, that is, the portrait as a window to the soul of the sitter. Alternatively, If we think of the portrait as a comment on the person’s social standing through their dress, posture, the objects in their midst, then Cezanne’s portraits give us nothing of this either. Thus, not only does Cezanne do away with the psychological identity of the sitter, but in his very best portraits even the physical characteristics become irrelevant. The figure may be present in the painting, but the body does not seem to carry much meaning. As a result, the newspaper that his father reads, the books surrounding Gustave Geffroy, the room in which his wife sits, and the bodies themselves tell nothing of the personality of the figure or the world in which they are living.
Paul Cezanne, Portrait de Monsieur Ambroise Vollard, 1899
In perhaps the most beautiful of the works on display at the National Portrsit Gallery, the image of Ambroise Vollard shows a man deep in thought, perhaps unable to escape his depressive state. The deep blue of Vollard’s clothes as they merge together with the bench on which he sits evoke the weight of his emotions, and by extension, the weight of the human condition. The beauty of the image comes from the soft light on the side of Vollard’s face allowing the other side of his body to melt into the background while still retaining the distinction between the figure and the seat. All the emotion of the painting is held in the fusion of the two. And all this together with the fact that Vollard the art dealer is usually depicted by artists (such as in Picasso’s cubist portrait) as the wealthy capitalist who exploited the market for his own gains. Why does Cezanne give an inner life to the one man who history tells us was lacking emotional depth?

If Cezanne were to paint Vollard on a different day, he may indeed look like a completely different person. So often the portraits are not about the sitter as we see in the multiple images of his wife. Even when he paints her on the same seat, apparently within days of the last portrait, Cezanne’s wife appears as a completely different woman. With a lesser artist, the variability of the image would be attributed to the authority of the painter. However, it’s unlikely that this is the case with Cezanne. Because what he captures is more like a transient moment as it passes between the artist and the sitter on this one day in time. And thus, even as the figures can appear lifeless, they are always animated by the transience of the painting, and the ethereal traces of a relationship between artist and subject.
Paul Cezanne, Uncle Dominique, 1865-67
Next to the portrait of Vollard, my favorites were those early portraits of Cezanne’s uncle. Indeed, Cezanne’s most risky (and today, most fascinating) paintings are created in the intimacy of his relationship with the sitters. Which means that none of the surprises, the moments of radicality seem present in those of people he doesn’t know. And yet, Cezanne uses this intimacy to do something wholly unseen before his time: he abstracts the face, thus erases the subjectivity of the subject. The apparent deformity of the face is so clearly demonstrating Cezanne’s willingness to forego likeness in the interests of exploring skin. The abstraction of the uncle’s skin as it pushes into his features is another of those ineffable moments that captures the radicality of what Cezanne brings to art in the 20th century. The dissolution of the subject and the belief in realism as it was being applauded in the late 19th century is Cezanne’s vehicle for his venture toward painted abstraction. This, I believe, makes Cezanne a great painter, and the National Gallery can be applauded for its exhibition of greatness in an age when blockbusters and commercially viable art has taken over London’s museum culture. Perhaps this was what the reviews were celebrating?

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