Henri Matisse believed that Paul Cezanne was “a sort of God of painting”—a small measure for the esteem one master held for another. Born January 19, 1839, Cezanne’s unique style created a whole new way of seeing, disrupting the long history of illusionistic realism in Western art and opening up the image space as exactly that—image. Even his Self-Portrait (above, from 1873-1876) breaks all the existing rules of portraiture, creating a recognizable face but approaching it the same way he would a still life or a mountain—as a pure arrangement of planes and colors. Without Cezanne, there is no Cubism. Without Cubism, there is no Picasso, at least as we know him, and, therefore, no modern art as it exists today. Matisse’s statement that Cezanne was God is true in the sense that he is truly the beginning. Such statements about Cezanne always make me think of the way that the old bluesmen would speak of their predecessors. “You should have heard so and so…” they’d say, lamenting the loss of such music before the era of recordings. Fortunately, we can appreciate Cezanne today just as well as those early admirers could.
Cezanne is infamous for two things: his curmudgeonly personality and his glacially slow painting style. He would paint the same subject over and over, continually searching for another way to reduce the image to its most basic elements. Fortunately, both the PMA and the Barnes Foundation own rich collections of his work right here in my backyard, including several versions of his The Mount Sainte-Victoire (above, from 1885-95, at the Barnes Foundation). To use another musical metaphor, like jazz great Louis Armstrong, the “God” of jazz music in America, Cezanne used years of technique and observation to whittle his art down to its essentials. Armstrong could say volumes with just a few notes. Cezanne could erect an entire mountain and its surroundings with a few brushstrokes.
Cezanne also revolutionized the way the nude was portrayed, particularly in his three versions of the Large Bathers, now at the PMA (shown above, from 1899-1906), the National Gallery, London, and the Barnes Foundation. When the PMA acquired their Large Bathers, Dr. Albert Barnes protested furiously, indignant that two of the three versions would be exhibited so closely. Dr. Barnes “loss,” however, is my gain. I always love coming to the PMA and looking down the long hallway cutting through the European painting section and seeing Cezanne’s Large Bathers there at the end. Of all the creative hangings I’ve seen in museums, I’ve always thought that the placement of the Large Bathers was one of the most effective. Looking down that hallway is like looking back through time to the end of the old tradition of European painting and at the beginning of the new tradition of modernism. At the center of both of Cezanne.