“With an apple I will amaze Paris”, declared Paul Cézanne. And so he did. A still life with a basket of apples is the first painting seen upon entering the great retrospective that Tate Modern is dedicating to the Provençal artist.
Cézanne was never entirely at ease in the French capital. It was his childhood friend Emile Zola who persuaded him to move to Paris to enter the creative world of the artistic avant-garde, but he always remained an outsider. The Salon regularly rejected his paintings, considered not worthy of the prestigious annual review.
Study, dig, deepen
The first exhibition of his works was in 1895, a great success that the artist however had to wait for 34 years after his arrival in Paris. Cézanne loved to face the same theme, the same image or the same landscape repeatedly, studying, exploring and deepening, digging and experimenting to find new angles and different sensations. It was an almost obsessive search for perfection, an attempt to capture not only the materiality but also the essence of things with a brush. A conceptual and at the same time extremely practical approach to painting that has made the artist so innovative and influential. He did it with still lifes, especially apples.
Closed in his studio, he concentrated on what was considered the least prestigious of the subjects, decomposing, rearranging and recomposing the images. His still lifes are extremely alive and vital, fruits and objects that vibrate with color and seem to move on the canvas, slipping off the plate. “Cézanne’s fruits are not edible, but become real objects indestructible in their stubborn presence,” wrote the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. The shape is defined by the color. Rilke also wrote that Cézanne used 16 different shades of blue, which he mixed himself. And he did it with landscapes, two in particular. One room of the exhibition is dedicated to representations of L’Estaque, a seaside village near Marseille where Cézanne vacationed with his family. The beloved landscape is seen, reviewed and reinterpreted, separated into each of its components. Already in a painting from 1878 the houses and roofs are divided and divided into geometric shapes. The picture in question, “The sea at l’Estaque behind the trees”, was by Pablo Picasso and was loaned by the Picasso Museum in Paris. Both Picasso and Georges Braque were great admirers of Cézanne and willing to admit that it was he who had invented Cubism, thirty years before them. Another room brings together the paintings dedicated to Mount Sainte-Victoire, in Provence, a mountain loved and painted from every angle and from every perspective, far and near, seen from below and from behind the trees, imposing and remote, at every hour of the day and in every season. Cézanne dedicated over 80 paintings to the mountain, studying the geology of the rocks and their different colors, fascinated by this massive presence unchanged over time but always different on the canvas. Towards the end of his life, the center of the artist’s still lifes are skulls instead of apples, a presentiment of death soothed by the usual use of color. The last few years were also the most rewarding, thanks to the boundless admiration of the other artists. For Monet he was “the greatest of us all”, while Matisse wrote that “Cézanne was never wrong” and Picasso called him “my first and only teacher”.
Cezanne. Tate Modern, London, until 12 March 2023