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Finding a Muse in Mountains, Chestnut Trees
By Roberta Smith
Artistic earthquakes in Provence: Paul Cézanne's "Montagne Sainte-Victoire Seen From Bibémus" (from around 1897), features the mountain that was his recurring inspiration and depicts it in a way that shook representational painting to its core.
Courtesy Baltimore Museum of Art

Were it not that I am deeply in love with the landscape of my country, I should not be here." When Paul Cézanne wrote those words in 1896, a decade before his death, they stated the obvious.

By then Cézanne, 57, had spent much of his adult life moving like an itinerant painter through the southern French region of Provence, the object of his affections. He had, of course, been to Paris and put in his time at the Louvre; he had worked beside Camille Pissarro in Pontoise and Auvers in the mid-1870's, absorbing the basics of Impressionism's reasonable, systematic technique. But he never strayed for long from the area around Aix-en-Provence, where he was born in 1839 and over his father's objections began to be a painter.

The art Cézanne made in Provence, especially his last convulsive images of Mont Sainte-Victoire, ultimately shook painting to its core. It effectively destabilized centuries of representation to reach a deeper, fuller, nearly hallucinatory kind of realism. In the early 1900's, when Cézanne's paintings began to be known to younger artists like Braque, Picasso, Matisse and Mondrian, these works provided the foundations for Cubism and the multiple strands of early Modernism.

Cézanne's role as Modernism's Old Testament prophet, and his great Moses-like exhortation, is palpable in "Cézanne in Provence," an invigorating exhibition that opens on Jan. 29 at the National Gallery of Art here. Although the works range from early efforts to late and include portraits and still lifes, this survey is dominated by landscapes. It is an earth-centered, streamlined retrospective that encapsulates Cézanne's achievement with a force and lucidity that should appeal to neophytes and devotees alike.

The show was organized by Philip Conisbee, senior curator of European paintings at the National Gallery, and Denis Coutagne, conservator in chief of the Granet Museum in Aix-en-Provence, where it will open on June 9. The exhibition's 87 paintings and 30 watercolors proceed in largely chronological fashion, arranged in short thematic bursts that move the viewer around the artist's natural habitat like an efficient, erudite tour guide.

"Cézanne in Provence" presents nature in a kind of hyperspace where everything is alive and in flux. The images quake; their forms unlock and relock. Monumental stones tremble within their majestic solidity. The light gives and takes, reveals and distorts. The very air jumps.

Yet we are never unaware of the picture plane, the brushwork, the artist's hand and the artificiality of the edifice before us. Or of a vision so acute that it becomes unclear where Provence stops and Cézanne starts: the stripped-down elemental Provençal terrain dovetailed perfectly with his artistic needs and ambitions, forming an unusual symbiosis of setting and sensibility, topography and temperament. In addition to offering daily confirmation that, as he said, nature's forms were reducible to cubes, cones and cylinders, Provence also provided the artist's triangulated palette of blue, green and orange or tan.

Like a glacier, Cézanne's landscapes pulverize traditional representation — shearing forms, upending spatial expectations and strewing compositions with obstacles that block easy entry. The eye must climb up or down, or squeeze past tilted planes, jutting shapes and unexpected solidities; it must reconcile monumental geological facts with small painted ones, and vast open spaces with close, vibrating surfaces that look back to Byzantine mosaics and forward to digital pixilation.

In Provence, Cézanne was a stalker of vistas, a man obsessed with working in the open air, or "sur le motif" as he put it. He was also a stalker with a monthly allowance, which enabled him to wrestle his perceptions onto canvas without worrying about sales and to put down or pull up stakes as he chose.

He summered in L'Estaque, a Mediterranean town, trudging into the hills to depict its blocky, buff-colored houses and red-tile roofs nestling against the curving Gulf of Marseilles. He rented a room in the unfinished Château Noir near Aix to store works in progress depicting the building's brittle geometric shell, the forest around it and the abandoned Bibémus Quarry nearby. In 1901 he started building a small studio even closer to Aix, at Les Lauves, whose terrace afforded him an ideal view of his beloved Mont Sainte-Victoire with its shelflike ridge and barren peaks. As is often noted, Cézanne was as devoted to its stark slopes and profiles as other artists were to the human (usually female) face and body.

Sainte-Victoire's big shrugging mass, evocative of a headless sphinx, is the show's heavyweight leitmotif. Cézanne's intimacy with the mountain is summed up in the first gallery, where it looms behind a grove of leafless chestnut trees in an 1885-86 painting made at Jas de Bouffan, the small farming estate that Cézanne's father bought in 1859. (Accepting the inevitable, he eventually built his son a studio there.) Later, a wonderfully plain and solid drawing, foreshadowing Juan Gris, zeroes in on the same vista.

The opening gallery skips around a bit. It includes a quietly emphatic view, dated 1868-70, of shadowy chestnut trees around the basin at Jas de Bouffan, in which the Corot-like greens, blacks and tans are dispatched with the blunt, debonair surface extravagance of Manet. In the next work, a decade later, Cézanne is back at the basin, working thin and creating a startling double image of farm buildings and their reflections; it is one of the more blatant paintings-within-paintings that his disrupted planes sometimes intimate.

The second and third galleries continue to set the stage. One is dominated by a series of early portraits made at Jas de Bouffan, including images of Cézanne's father, his uncle Dominique and the friends of his youth, as well as a humble still life of a sugar bowl and pears. All are vigorously palette-knifed in obeisance to Courbet. The next gallery displays later works from Jas de Bouffan, still lifes and portraits of peasants; best of all are a compact rehearsal of the large "Cardplayers," now belonging to the Barnes Foundation, and a portrait of Cézanne's wife, Hortense.

"Rocks at L'Estaque": 24" X 20" Oil Painting On Canvas. Hand painted oil reproduction of a famous Cezanne painting, Rocks Near L'Estaque. The original masterpiece was created in 1882-85.

At least in this telling, the farther Cézanne ventures from Jas de Bouffan, the stronger his work becomes. The next gallery has him in L'Estaque, painting "Rocks at L'Estaque," a high-up view free of sea or houses, in which gray boulders wrap around a pitch-black shadow like fat gray fingers — a geological gesture of elemental power.

From here on, the show's well-paced changes in "motif" sum up how Cézanne worked his way around the countryside, and especially around Mont Sainte-Victoire. In a series of four works, the mountain's sharp hump crowns the distance, framed by balletic pine branches, seen across a patchwork plain whose vastness is measured by the tiny arches of a far-off viaduct. Turn around and you'll catch the flat crenellated ridge of Sainte-Victoire's western ridge supplying a stark reprimand in two somewhat bucolic scenes of farm buildings, entering from the right of the picture like a big, marauding locomotive that might have inspired de Chirico.

In the next gallery Sainte-Victoire rises above the orange mass of the Bibémus Quarry, which walls off the lower portion of the painting. The show culminates in a wall of erupting, nearly abstract renderings of the mountain from 1902-6 — they could almost be posted with a sign: "Cubism This Way, Two Years." (By the spring of 1908 Braque, having recently seen Cézanne's memorial exhibition at the Salon d'Automne, was in L'Estaque, painting its houses and hills with new eyes.)

The exhibition's substantial catalog has a recently discovered photograph of Cézanne, taken in April 1906 by Gertrude Osthaus, wife of the German museum director Karl Ernst Osthaus. It shows him playing the gracious host as he steps through a doorway with a chair for one of his guests. It is a wonderful image, one that briefly obscures the fact that he was a lonely, irascible man, suffering from diabetes, whose single-minded devotion to his art inspired artists almost as much as his innovations did.

"I work obstinately," he wrote bitterly in 1903. He continued to do so until about a week before he died. He collapsed while painting outdoors and, after lying in the rain for several hours, was found and brought home in a laundry cart. He died on Oct. 23, 1906, in Aix.

Cézanne's work reminds us that a bond with the natural world is often an essential aspect of great art, regardless of style. Even more valuable, his achievement confirms that artists must change painting in a basic, physical way to be truly innovative.

It was the landscape of Provence, more than anything else, that pushed Cézanne to make his particular changes. It prodded him to unhinge painting from conventional representation, to create breathing space between his brushstrokes and what they described. The proof is in the making. He brought a new equilibrium to painting's essential trifecta — the act of seeing, the psychic and physical process of painting, and the finished work — that gives the medium its novelistic richness and, even now, its firm grip on the imagination.

"Cézanne in Provence" opens on Sunday at the National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW, Washington; (202) 737-4215, The exhibition runs through May 7.

The above article is from The New York Times.






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