The shaping of a Post-Impressionist

by Jeff Hammond

Special To The Japan Times

When the influential art critic Clement Greenberg described a particular painter as “the most copious source of what we know as modern art, the most abundant generator of ideas and the most enduring in newness,” it wasn’t, as some might expect, Pablo Picasso he was referring to but Paul Cezanne, a generation older and a profound inspiration on 20th century art.

Cezanne was born in 1839 in the sun-drenched region of Aix-en-Provence in Southern France and worked much of the time in Paris — the center of European art and the bohemian culture associated with it — frequently traveling between the two areas. “Cezanne: Paris, Provence” invites Japanese audiences to consider the impact of these two key locations on the development of the artist’s work.

The exhibition is divided into five sections, the first introducing Cezanne’s early years, the others each focusing on the four main themes or genres he mined — the body, landscape, portraiture and still life — and is rounded off with a life-size reconstruction of the artist’s studio.

“The Four Seasons” is dated from 1861, the year Cezanne left for Paris, but is one of three murals he completed over a 10-year period for Jas de Bouffon, the new home his successful banker father had recently purchased in Aix-en-Provence. Displaying a folksy treatment of a classical theme the mural series attests to Cezanne’s frequent coming and going between the two locations. Cheekily signed “Ingres” as a nod to one of the artists he revered, it also indicates that Cezanne was in many ways a classicist at heart, wishing not to destroy the work of the past as much as have his own art recognized as equal to it.

While an artist’s early works can betray a trial period of copying old masters and tentatively adopting new styles before finding his or her own path, Cezanne’s other works from the same period suggest that he had, in some ways, already mapped out the direction he wanted to go.

“Sugar Bowl, Pears and Blue Cup,” for example, displays the boldness and vigor the artist would uphold throughout his career. The thick impasto blocks of paint and highly textural surfaces contrast with the requirements of the juries of Salon exhibitions, the keepers of the “official” art of the period, who believed brushstrokes should be cleanly covered over. The painting was executed between 1865 and 1870 in Paris, where Cezanne made a number of close acquaintances. He fell in with the Impressionists and became particularly close to Camille Pissarro, the two artists often making painting trips to the countryside near the city.

Even with this plein air approach, and the few characteristics he shared with the Impressionists, Cezanne pursued a distinct path of his own. While the Impressionists’ canvases were often light, airy and insubstantial — Renoir, in particular, sometimes descending into the twee — no such charges could be laid against Cezanne. His robust construction roots the elements of the picture firmly to the earth, pursuing his goal to “make of Impressionism something solid and lasting like the art in the museums.”

As an illustration of this aim, the show highlights various paintings Cezanne made of Mont Sainte-Victoire in Provence. Of two works hung side by side, the structural strength of the first, from 1886-7, is simplified in the other, from a decade later, where it is boiled down to a pictorial structure as solid as the mountain itself.

Cezanne applied the same structural logic to his portraits, concentrating less on psychological realism, or even detailed likeness, in favor of a “figurative harmony” between the sitter and their surroundings, and drawing attention to the picture surface. This can be seen in the 1899 portrait of his art dealer Ambroise Vollard, where he distorts the room’s depth and flattens space into a single plane. This section of the exhibition also includes some classic Cezanne works such as the portrait of his wife in a red armchair and his intense self-portrait from 1875.

The section on the human body cannot boast of so many great works, but it does show how Cezanne approached the subject with life studies and through adapting the achievements of other artists. Pencil and watercolor sketches inspired by Manet, such as his “Luncheon on the Grass” (1870-71), and Michelangelo explore the human body both in the painter’s social milieu in Paris and in its elemental state in nature.

“Three Bathers,” from 1876-77 prefigures the more monumental works on the same subject, which he competed in the 1900s, and, with its placing of leaning trees, is constructed around the triangle composition that Cezanne often returned to when depicting female figures.

While the exhibition pushes the Paris-Provence binary, the more fundamental dualism of the gender of the subjects in these studies — with male and female eliciting different treatment — complicates the issue of where Cezanne’s works were made and how location affects them. The difference that this makes is quite startling in his still lifes, where the muted pallete of his work in Paris gives way to the almost golden luminosity of the apples and oranges painted in the Mediterranean light of Provence, as shown in a dozen or so canvases here.

With these dedicated sections spotlighting how the artist tackled various genres of painting, together with the exhibition’s foregrounding of the importance of location, “Cezanne: Paris, Provence” is the most thorough exhibition on the artist that Tokyo has seen. It brings together many of Cezanne’s major triumphs while outlining some keys areas in his artistic development.

“Cezanne: Paris-Provence” at The National Art Center, Tokyo, runs till June 11; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.). ¥1,500. Closed Tue. www.nact.jp