Exhibition on Screen: Cézanne: Portraits of a Life (2018) - full transcript

Paul Cezanne's life can be divided into two very different periods. Born in 1839 in a prosperous family, with a banker father, he chose a life and artistic career very different from the expectations of the bourgeois environment. All his young years he lived quite precariously from his father's allowances, supplemented with financial support received from his friends, including Emile Zola. Only after 1886, after his father's death, has was able to enjoy financial independence. That's when his artistic recognition also began. The younger painters of the time were the first to understand the revolution brought to art by the French painter, for whom not the subjects of his paintings were important but their form, the struggle with the artist's tools and materials in the desire to capture and remodel the colors and lights of the world. Throughout his life Cezanne was also an ardent and constant epistolary. The exhibition, organized two years ago and presented in 2017 and 2018 successively at the National Gallery of Portraits in London, the Musee d'Orsay in Paris and the Smithsonian in Washington DC, approached a topic less researched and less appreciated of Cezanne's works - his portraits. Phil Grabsky's 'Cézanne - Portraits of a Life' the 'Exhibition on Screen' cycle uses letters and portraits as milestones in the journey through the biographical and artistic path of the painter.One might argue that Cezanne was not the most skillful portraitist in art history. Most of his portraits are self-portraits or represent Hortense, the painter's wife. These are inner-focused portraits. Thoughts, personality, feelings are not very visible - the attention of the viewer is attracted to something else. Shapes delimited by color and light, simplified and yet so eloquent geometry, the palette always expressive without ever being strident - all these are components of a change in the relationship between the artist and the subjects of his works. From this point of view Cezanne's portraits are on the same line as his landscapes or the still life works painted in the artist's studios. Each of these painting subjects had centuries-old history when they were approached by Cezanne. All these genres were looked at differently after Cezanne dealt with them.Phil Grabsky's documentary follows Cezanne's life using works from the exhibition of portraits as visual material and the letters exchanged by the artist with his father, his friends (Emile Zola in particular), his contemporaries who were gradually beginning to recognize the value of his work, as text and commentary. Unlike other 'Exhibition on Screen' series, we get less information about the exhibition itself, although the curators, experts and directors of the institutions that hosted the exhibition make their contributions, especially through descriptions and explanations of portraits exposed in the context of other works of the respective periods. The documentary is complemented by biographical details related in particular to the family relations provided by Phillipe Cézanne, the artist's great-grandson. Some of the accompanying images are filmed in the artist's house and workshop, today a museum in Aix-en-Provence, which I had the opportunity to visit last year. The most eloquent images are however the paintings themselves, filmed on an overall and detailed level. Cezanne was an artist but also an artisan, inventor and road opener in shape, colors and technique. Art documentaries such as 'Cézanne - Portraits of a Life' help us to understand him, but direct contact with his paintings is a really unique and unforgettable experience.

Someone needs to stop Clearway Law.
Public shouldn't leave reviews for lawyers.

My age and my health will never allow me

to realise the artistic dream I have pursued all my life.

But I shall always be grateful to the audience of intelligent art lovers

who have sensed what I was trying to do to renew my art,

in spite of my halting attempts.

In my opinion, one does not replace the past,

one only adds a new link.

With painter's temperament and an artistic ideal,

that is to say a conception of nature,

there should be sufficient means of expression

to be intelligible to the general public

and to occupy a suitable rank in the history of art.

Paul Cézanne

An exhibition of this scale and ambition takes many years to put together.

So this one goes back to 2009

when the conversations were first had

about "Why had no one ever done an exhibition of Cézanne's portraits?",

which seems a remarkable fact but is true.

And, of course, in this case,

we're partnering with the Musée d'Orsay in Paris

and the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.

At least in the recent or modern period,

this is the first exhibition that is dedicated to Cézanne's portraits.

The question of the portraits was a bit of a blind spot.

Everybody has been a little afraid of the subject,

because Cézanne did not think himself a portrait artist,

did not claim to be a portrait artist.

Cézanne is the great formalist master.

I mean, he really sets up a kind of abstraction

that you're going to see unfold in the 20th century

and he's best known as a still-life and landscape painter

where you don't generally get

issues of emotional and psychological expression or affect.

So the drama of this show, I think,

is what happens when you replace these inanimate objects

with not only human beings but people who he knew really well.

The portraits are fascinating,

because you can see a sort of Cézanne retrospective.

You see the different stages of his painting,

the different interests.

So what's wonderful in this journey through portraits

is that, perhaps more than in other subjects in Cézanne's life,

the artistic journey of the man is revealed.

What is unique about the portraits

is that they, even more than work in other genres,

take you through Cézanne's life.

When you stand looking at them, you stand where Cézanne stood.

I think actually one gets a greater sense of Cézanne as a human presence.

It is said often that Cézanne is the father of modern art,

with new generations looking to him for inspiration.

To him, he was nothing at all.

He just did his work.

But these new generations think otherwise.

It's astonishing that I meet painters

who four generations later

say they have been influenced by the work of Cézanne.

So clearly he is someone who opened doors.

Aix, 9th April 1858

Dear Émile, a poem...

Farewell, my dear Émile

No, on the flowing stream

I no longer slip as gaily as in times gone by,

when with agile arms like reptiles

we swam together across the calm waters.

Farewell, fine days seasoned with wine!

Lucky fishing for prodigious fish!

When in my catch in the cool river

my surly line caught nothing dreadful.

Do you remember the pine that stood on the bank of the Arc,

lowering its leafy head over the chasm that opened at its feet?

That pine that protected our bodies with its foliage

from the heat of the sun, ah!

May the Gods preserve it from the fatal blow of the woodcutter's axe!

Aix, 7th December 1858

Dear Émile,

Alas, I took the tortuous path of law.

"I took" is not the word.

I was forced to take law, horrible law with all equivocations.

It will make my life a misery for three years!

Have pity on me, an unhappy mortal.

Aix, 20th June 1859

I was very much in love with a certain Justine

who is truly very fine.

Dear Émile,

One fine day a young man accosted me.

"Mon cher", he said.

"I'm about to show you a sweet little thing whom I love and who loves me."

I had a premonition that my luck had run out, as you might say,

and I was not wrong,

for just as the clock struck midday,

Justine came out of the dressmaker's where she works,

and, my word, Seymard indicated, "There she is."

Since then, I have seen her nearly every day

often Seymard in her tracks.

Ah! What fantasies I built,

as mad as can be,

but, you see, it's like this...

I said to myself, if she didn't despise me,

we should go to Paris together.

There I should become an artist, we should be happy.

I dreamt of pictures, a studio on the fourth floor,

you with me, how we should have laughed.

I did not ask to be rich, you know how I am.

Me, with a few hundred francs I thought we could live happily.

But, by God, it was a really great dream,

and now I'm so idle that I'm only happy when I've had a drink.

I can hardly do anything.

I am inert, good for nothing.

Aix was a very small town,

a city of around 20-25,000 inhabitants.

A small town that still had its ramparts,

that was still surrounded by walls dating back to the Middle Ages,

with gates that were locked every night.

Cézanne and Zola met at the College Bourbon,

the only college of the time.

They go on to form a very deep friendship.

And this friendship will soon lead to the desire

to become an artist, a creator.

They talk a lot about poetry, about literature.

I think it is important to know

that Cézanne and Zola had a beautiful youth,

a youth that marked them for all their lives.

Paris, 3rd March 1861

You pose an odd question.

Of course one can work here, as anywhere, given the willpower.

Moreover, Paris has something you can't find anywhere else,

museums in which you can study from the Masters from 11 till four.

Here is how you could organise your time.

From six to 11 you'll go to the studio and paint from the live model.

You'll have lunch, then from midday till four,

you'll copy the masterpiece of your choice,

either in the Louvre or in the Luxembourg.

That will make nine hours of work.

I think that's enough

and with such a regime it won't be long before you do something good.

You see, that leaves us all evening free,

and we can do whatever we like, without impinging at all on our studies.

Then on Sundays we'll take off and go to some places around Paris.

There are some charming spots,

and if so moved you can knock off a little canvas

of the trees under which we'll have lunched.

As for the question of money,

it's true that your allowance of 125 francs a month

won't allow you any great luxury but you'll have enough to get by.

Like all artists of this generation, he is an assiduous visitor to the Louvre.

"The Louvre is an open book that you are continuously consulting."

So there's a relationship with the Old Masters

but also a very direct relationship with the previous generation,

particularly Courbet.

It's true that in Courbet's world

he finds this kind of honesty,

this way of honestly describing his relationship with the world.

It's what Courbet did with A Burial at Ornans

when he paints this small village in Franche-Comté

that is unknown to the Parisian world,

with a series of anonymous people who are burying someone.

We don't even know who.

A painting that doesn't reveal anything,

a painting which communicates many things through omission,

through interpretation.

I think that's very important for Cézanne too.

And we'll find it in Cézanne later on

in the figures such as The Card Players

or The Gardener Vallier.

These magnified figures, almost made into monuments...

We're no longer in a portrait context

but we have a kind of dignity in the representation

of an anonymous subject in a very commonplace context

in a provincial French town at the end of the 19th century.

That is the subject of his painting.

Paris, 4th June 1861

I thought that when I left Aix I'd leave the ennui that pursues me far behind.

All I've done is swap places and the ennui has followed me.

I left my parents, my friends, some of my routines. That's all.

I have to admit that I wander about aimlessly practically all day.

Naïve as it sounds,

I've seen the Louvre, the Musée du Luxembourg and Versailles.

You know the potboilers they have in those fine monuments.

It's amazing, overwhelming, breathtaking.

But don't think I'm becoming Parisian.

I've also seen the Salon.

For a young heart, for a child born for art, who says what he thinks,

I believe it's there that the best is truly to be found,

because there every taste and every style meets and collides.

Paris, August 1861

We've been together six hours today.

Our meeting place is Paul's little room.

There, he's doing my portrait,

during which time I read or we chat together.

Paul paints on relentlessly.

The slightest obstacle sends him into despair.

Paris, 19th April 1866

Dear Monsieur Count de Nieuwerkerke,

I cannot accept the illegitimate verdict of colleagues

who have no authority from me to assess my work.

I wish to appeal to the public and to be exhibited nevertheless.

So let the Salon des Refusés,

for those that have been refused entry to the Salon,

be re-established.

Even if I were the only one in it,

I would still want the public to know

that I have no wish to have anything to do with those gentlemen of the jury,

any more than they appear to wish to have anything to do with me.

It's very difficult to understand who the real Cézanne is,

because in the early years of his career as a painter

he has to find his place in a Parisian avant-garde milieu

and particularly to find his place in Manet's circle.

So in some respects he plays Courbet's role,

the rather uncultivated provincial

who is a bit provocative, not very well dressed,

a bit grumpy, a bit inaccessible.

So he constructs this character perhaps to protect himself better

and also, in order to strike a more unique tone,

he quickly detaches himself from the social game.

Cézanne returned very often to Provence.

It must be said that the image of Provence in Paris at the time

was that of a distant land

where it was a peasant world that was not yet socialised,

away from Parisian modernity,

away from the intelligentsia,

when actually he was the most intelligent,

the most literary and the most cultivated of his time.

He could write verses in Latin.

He knew Seneca, he knew Virgil.

He knew Latin poetry.

He knew Tacitus and so on.

Often when reading the works of art historians,

I find that they are rather off-track regarding Cézanne.

They paint him as a rather aggressive, angry, lonely man and so on.

But it's not quite true. There was another side of Cézanne

who was a cheerful man,

who loved music, who liked to sing,

who even liked to write poems and read them out loud over a lunch or a dinner.

On the other hand, when he worked, he was a little monastic.

He had to be alone, he needed reflection,

he worked slowly.

As we're told by Vollard and others,

before any stroke of the brush he was very anxious,

because one touch could completely transform his painting.

The Jas de Bouffan was a residence dating from the 18th century

built for the military governor of Aix.

Cézanne's father buys this for the family

from the heirs of the military governor

who are in debt,

and Cézanne's father buys it in 1859.

It will become a summer residence at first.

For Cézanne it is a place to paint, although he is often in Paris.

When he comes here, I imagine he's relatively quiet,

he's left alone in the big living room.

His father is not there very often.

He did not begin to live there permanently until 1870,

when it becomes a home for the Cézanne family

from 1870 to the death of Cézanne's father in 1886.

Cézanne then has the certainty of having a studio.

It is his place in Provence here until 1898.

His mother dies in 1897,

and it became necessary to sell the property.

I think for Cézanne this is heartbreaking.

Aix, 23rd October 1866

Dear Camille,

I'm here in the bosom of my family with the foulest people on earth,

those who make up my family, who can be excruciatingly annoying.

Aix, 2nd November 1866

I have been here in Aix, this "Athens of the North", with Paul Cézanne.

A portrait of his father in a big armchair comes over really well.

The painting is light in tone. The look is very fine.

The father has the air of a pope on his throne,

if it weren't for the newspaper that he's reading.

The people of Aix still get on his nerves.

They ask to come and see his painting so that they can rubbish it.

And he has a good way of dealing with them.

"Bugger off", he says.

It's a very early portrait for Cézanne

and it's done in his style known as the manière couillarde,

which is roughly translated as the "ballsy manner".

Cézanne is using a palette knife for much of the composition

but also wide brushes

and really slathering on the paint in a very kind of physical, gestural way

and I think he's after an image that is quite powerful.

He wanted to make a statement certainly.

He's young, he's new to the Parisian art scene and he's very ambitious.

The sitter is of course his father, Louis-Auguste Cézanne.

He had started his business in hat-making in Aix

and made quite a bit of money

and then became a banker and was one of the richest men in town.

You see him there sitting in his armchair, reading his newspaper,

very much an image of what a businessman of the day would be doing,

he's keeping up with the times.

The paper that he regularly read

was one of wide circulation, particularly in the south of France.

It was called Le Siècle.

It's interesting that he's not reading the paper he normally would have read.

And there is this document, a letter from one of Cézanne's friends,

reporting that Cézanne changed late in the composition

the masthead on this paper to I'Événement,

which was a Parisian paper

that Émile Zola had recently published a defence of the avant-garde.

And I think that in a way

Cézanne is conflating the support of his friend Zola,

who had defended him in this newspaper, with the support of his father.

So it's really kind of an homage to this moment in his career

and it is an homage to his father. I think it's quite respectful.

He has a forceful presence in the picture frame

and he's brought up right against the picture plane,

so he's really almost out in your space. He's quite an imposing figure.

There's no doubt that at the inception of a picture like this

he intended it for the Salon.

And the same year that he paints this painting

he does one of his very good friend, Achille Emperaire,

which he actually submits to the Salon and it is rejected.

So this painting doesn't make it into the Salon until 1882

and it is, in fact, the first painting by Cézanne accepted at a Salon.

Aix, 24th May 1868

My dear Morstatt,

We shall have the pleasure of seeing you

without having to wait for the next world,

since in your last letter you told us that you had come into your money.

Such good fortune makes me very happy for you

for we are all striving after art

without material worries disturbing the work that is so necessary to the artist.

With keen sympathy I clasp the hand

that need no longer soil itself in philistine labours.

Yours ever, Paul

7th June 1870

So I was rejected as before by the Salon,

but I am none the worse for it.

Needless to say I'm still painting, and for the moment I'm fine.

At the start of his career,

when you look at his double portrait of Alexis Reading to Émile Zola

you have proof that Cézanne was fascinated,

like many artists such as Monet, Renoir, by the figure of Manet in the 1860s.

It's the most Manet-like painting

because you see the elliptical stroke

with which he draws the trousers,

which is comparable to what we see in The Fife Player.

There is also the space sharply segmented into planes,

green shutters which are perhaps the same as on Manet's The Balcony,

and then, of course, the figure of Zola.

Zola is what Cézanne has in common between Aix-en-Provence and Paris.

He will give him a type of stature

which cannot be considered without the painting

that Manet himself made of Zola.

So it's the work which most closely brings together Cézanne and Manet

and also shows both the way in which Cézanne absorbs this modernity.

Paris, 26th November 1874

My dear mother,

Pissarro has not been in Paris for about a month-and-a-half.

He is in Brittany.

But I know he has a good opinion of me and I have a good opinion of myself.

I am beginning to consider myself stronger than all those around me.

I have to work all the time,

but not to achieve the finish that earns the admiration of imbeciles.

I must strive for completion

purely for the satisfaction of becoming truer and wiser.

It is a very bad moment for sales.

All the bourgeois baulk at parting with their cash,

but that will end.

Aix, April 1876

My dear Pissarro,

Two days ago I received a large number of catalogues and newspapers

about your exhibition at dealer Durand-Ruel's.

I also learned that Monet's La Japonaise had been sold for 2,000 francs.

According to the papers, it seems that Manet's rejection by the Salon

has caused quite a stir,

and that he's doing his own exhibition at home.

Here, the frost was so severe that the fruit and vine harvests were ruined.

But that's the advantage of art. Painting endures.

Oh! I almost forgot to tell you that I was sent another rejection letter.

It's neither new nor surprising.

Aix, April 1876

My dear Pissarro,

If having the Impressionists as background can help me,

I'll show the best I have with them,

and something neutral with the others.

The palette is lightening after 1870

and what gradually emerges by the end of the '70s,

in terms of the application,

is this so-called constructive brushstroke

where he started to lay everything out

with smallish individual brushstrokes running diagonally usually

across figure and ground,

so that one recognises again the materiality of the marking

as well as the subject.

We have on the walls of the Musée Granet

a landscape that represents the Jas de Bouffan.

And in this landscape of Jas de Bouffan

there is a period of transition.

We are in the years 1870-76, maybe 77.

So we have a painting that shows on the right-hand side

elements that are still impressionistic but in the manner of Cézanne,

that's to say that its form is constructive and structuring,

it has a sense, an orientation, an inclination,

a coherence which gives an internal architecture to the painting.

But on the left-hand side of the painting

we have the future of Cézanne, Cézanne's great originality,

the invention of the coloured plane.

The coloured plane is a way for Cézanne to reveal space,

to modulate the volume

without needing either the atmospheric perspective

or the Euclidean perspective which has been used since the Renaissance,

but to invent a new way of modelling and revealing space by the coloured plane.

With this series of planes and this superimposition of planes,

this picture of the view from Jas de Bouffan

clearly demonstrates this period of transition between the years 1870-1880.

Cézanne applies both one part and then the other

in the same canvas

and we absolutely see that evolution in this picture.

Paris, 24th August 1877

Dear Émile,

It seems that a deep depression reigns in the Impressionist camp.

They are not exactly making their fortune.

We are living in very troubled times.

Cézanne is one of those artists

who surpasses, most ambitiously,

the Impressionist legacy.

He invents something else after impressionism

which comes from the personal and private trajectory

of an artist who will question passionately

the subject of representation

and the means of representation,

stylistic devices, materials for representation,

questioning most closely the way nature is represented,

which also raises the question

of how to represent the human figure in a very particular way,

leading to a particular relationship with portrait art.

And gradually we see by the 1870s and during the 1880s

the establishing of the style with which we are most familiar,

which is sort of Cézanne's definitive style

of breaking down form and of working with the tone of the works.

With an economy of means colour gives form.

Anything superfluous is removed,

anything ephemeral.

You see that only the structure of things is retained.

And this quest for form, for permanence,

for the essence of things, for representations

is what someone such as Picasso was going to look at

and sense something there, a new way,

a painter's driving force.

Hortense Fiquet is his companion.

She gave him a son in January 1872.

Cézanne did not say anything to his father

until the day his father received in the mail here

a letter addressed to his son Paul.

He opens the mail. It's the head of the family who opens the mail.

And he realises that he is a grandfather.

He doesn't tell his son.

He says, "Listen, my son",

as you are without children

"and without a family, you do not need all the money I send you."

And he partly cuts his allowance.

And there Zola will play a major role.

For ten years, from 1876 to 1886,

he will regularly send Cézanne money.

23rd March 1878

Dear Émile,

I seem to be on the verge of having to fend for myself,

if indeed I'm up to it.

Relations between my father and myself are becoming very tense.

And I risk losing my entire allowance.

A letter from Monsieur Chocquet

in which he mentioned Madame Cézanne and little Paul

provided conclusive proof of my situation to my father,

who by the way was already alert, full of suspicions,

and who had nothing better to do than to unseal

and be the first to read the letter that was sent to me,

even though it was addressed to Monsieur Paul Cézanne, painter.

Aix, 4th April 1878

My dear Émile,

Please send 60 francs to Hortense in Marseilles.

I have only been able to secure 100 francs from my father

and I was even afraid that he might not give me anything at all.

He's heard from various people that I have a child

and he's trying by every means possible to catch me out.

He wants to rid me of it.

It would take too long to explain the good man to you

but appearances are deceptive, believe you me.

I slipped off last week to see the little one in Marseilles

but missed the train back and had to walk the 30 kilometres.

I was an hour late for dinner.

Hortense first and foremost served.

She took care of her husband all her life,

And contrary to what is often said, they lived much of their time together.

We mustn't forget that 50% of Cézanne's life was in the Paris area

and the other 50% here in Aix-en-Provence or nearby.

So the 50% in Paris they were together.

Hortense had the attitude of an artist's wife,

leaving him the freedom that he needed

and the same for her too.

From time to time things got a bit heated, like all couples.

But her everyday life was very busy, nothing was simple for her.

If you imagine that throughout her life

she moved 22 times to Paris.

So she didn't ever have a stable life

and she always accepted that.

Cézanne was not interested in providing a great deal of information

about the inner life of the people he painted.

He was interested in recording the human presence in front of him.

But what he doesn't do is invite you into Hortense's mind.

I think that the assumption that Cézanne and Hortense didn't get along well

is based on wanting to read the portraits of her

as someone who looks like an automaton

or someone who looks miserable or so on and so forth,

that is supposed to indicate that they didn't have a decent relationship.

However, among many other things,

she was his model and she had to sit still for a lot of time.

I have a very good friend

who has been a model for an artist for many, many years

and she says, "You sit there for a long time,"

you try not to make eye contact, you try not to move around

"and at times you're just bored."

"You're bored and you know you're going to show it."

Aix, 1st June 1878

Émile, please send the monthly request of 60 francs to Hortense.

27th August

Émile, I plan to spend all winter in Marseilles

if my father agrees to give me the money.

14th September

Hortense's father wrote to her but it came to the Jas de Bouffan.

My father opened it and read it. You can imagine the result.

But Papa gave me 300 francs this month.

Incredible. Why?

Well, I think he's making eyes at a charming maid of ours.

24th September 1879

My dear Émile,

Here is what prompts me to write,

for nothing happened since I left you in June

that could have led me to write a letter,

even though you were kind enough to say last time

that I should give you my news.

Today and tomorrow are so like yesterday that I don't know what to tell you.

I'm still trying to find my way pictorially.

Nature presents me with the greatest problems.

But I'm not getting on too badly.

Jas de Bouffan, 27th November 1882

My dear Émile,

I have decided to make a will.

In the event of my death, I wish to leave half my income to my mother

and the other half to the little one.

I need to get the little one recognised at the town hall

or I fear my sisters would contest it.

The self-portraits are effectively an exhibition within the exhibition.

It's a subject on its own.

We can see clearly in the first self-portrait,

which is very disturbing with his bloodshot eyes,

there is something nevertheless which speaks of introspection,

of a kind of confession too

from this young man who is somewhat ill at ease.

And when he resumes the portraits in the 1870s

there finally appears the Cézanne who is actually the earnest craftsman,

who adopts certain conventions,

depicting himself in the studio,

in a smock,

making his way of painting clear too.

And in the last self-portrait that he makes of himself around 1900

we see this old man who depicts himself

in a very simple costume

and you have the impression that he is revealing himself to his painting.

So we oscillate between all these aspects,

but nevertheless Cézanne's character

is somewhat withdrawn

and doesn't prevent a certain moment of truth in the self-portraits.

We follow this evolution in terms of the question of self-portraits

which runs through all of the works

and which enables us to see Cézanne go back to this old questioning of painting

which is quite in keeping with Rembrandt,

seeing the passage of time on his physiognomy, on his own face,

"Here is what I was at this moment in my life."

So with very few external signs in the self-portraits

Cézanne is telling us something about his personality.

But it's fragmented.

It's like a giant puzzle for Cézanne's personality.

When we consider Cézanne's work,

we wonder how he could have lived while selling so few paintings

and, particularly with regards to the portraits,

creating works that he had little chance of selling.

His father gave him a meagre allowance that he could have made much bigger,

but which allowed him to survive in his early years.

And then Cézanne, at the end of the 1880s,

will inherit from his father these properties

which provide him with security

and ultimately will offer him the luxury of being able to work

independently of the sale of his works.

And this material security

implies a very different relationship with the portrait,

for example, to that of a Renoir,

who was really quite poor and had no family support

and who therefore worked throughout his life,

particularly at the beginning, on portraits in order to survive

and who therefore has a very different approach to the portrait.

This self-portrait is not only the representation of Cézanne at work,

but it's a self-portrait that is a metaphor for the art of the painting.

Cézanne isn't completely revolutionary,

because he forms part of a prestigious tradition which includes Rembrandt

with the canvas seen from behind,

which is in itself a metaphor for artistic creation,

for the artist in the process of doing his work.

But something quite miraculous happens,

which is the multiplication of the planes being represented.

The plane of the easel in relation to the plane of the figure

and, above all, the autonomy

of the palette's pictorial surface is fascinating.

The palette is directly parallel to the plane of representation,

so it is no longer at all in a plausible position

with respect to the artist's hand

and is itself a metaphor for painting.

This is the uniqueness and power of the painting

which could tip over into abstraction

which Cézanne won't do but what appears on the palette is absolutely marvellous,

especially if we consider that relationship of the palette

to the painting itself.

And that's also why, in addition to the brilliance of the construction,

this self-portrait fascinates us today

and why it had its place in our exhibition.

Paris, 27th November 1889

The numerous studies to which I devoted myself

having produced only negative results,

and dreading criticism that is only too justified,

I had resolved to work in silence,

until the day when I should feel capable of defending theoretically

the results of my endeavours.

1st August 1890

Chère Madame,

You must be back from Paris, so I'm sending you my letter.

We're going to leave on Thursday or Friday for Switzerland

where we expect to end the season.

It is very good weather and we are hoping that continues.

Little Paul and I have already spent ten days in Switzerland

and we found that country so beautiful that we came back eager to return.

We saw Vevey where Courbet did the lovely painting that you own.

I hope, dear Madame,

that you and Monsieur Chocquet and little Maris are well.

We are fine.

I feel better than when I left,

and am hoping that my trip to Switzerland

will put me right completely.

We plan to look for somewhere to stay and to spend the summer there.

My husband has been working pretty well.

Unfortunately he was disturbed by the bad weather that we had

up until 10th July.

Still he continues to apply himself to the landscape

with a tenacity deserving of a better fate.

The most sensational grouping is without doubt

the versions of Madame Cézanne in a yellow chair

in this red dress.

We see Cézanne simultaneously treat his wife geometrically

and in so doing reduce her almost to a still life,

changing her position and the way she is presented in the space,

in the same way that you'd imagine

he might move elements of a still life itself,

a fruit bowl, an apple, a jug.

And you can see very clearly that at a certain moment

he's in sketching mode, at another moment reworking.

And at the same time he's varying this relationship to space

and this new perception of space.

Here we're touching upon one of Cézanne's major contributions

to 20th-century art.

You see the same model

a few hours apart,

whose face is different, who doesn't have the same attitude,

suggesting a different psychological state,

but who doesn't give you many clues to help understand and decipher her.

You have a serial effect which is very interesting

and which is also interesting to compare with

the serial effect in Monet in the same period,

who is also someone who went beyond impressionism.

With Monet it's a race with light, with time.

The motif of cathedrals, or haystacks...

We all know about this magnificent serial work that he created.

With Cézanne it's a race to the essence of the model, of the character.

This is Boy in a Red Waistcoat

and it is my favourite painting in the show

and in fact my favourite painting at the National Gallery of Art.

It is a portrait of a young boy named Michelangelo di Rosa,

who was a model and this is the only paid model that we know he ever used,

this Italian boy that was a regular model in the neighbourhood.

Cézanne goes to the Louvre

and he's looking at Renaissance Florentine Mannerist portraits,

people like Bronzino and Pontormo.

They are wonderful in that they are

evocations of a very particular kind of arrogant youth.

Fashion was at a high level at this moment

and so they tended to be beautifully dressed

and they were also soldiers, they were very fit.

So it's a very particular moment, I think, in the history of adolescence

that Cézanne is responding to.

His son is about the age of this young model

and I think it is a really beautiful portrayal

of this very human phenomenon of adolescence.

A young man who is still very much a boy.

The features are very delicate.

The expression is one of simultaneous confidence and a little trepidation,

maybe even melancholy.

And then in the pose he's got this wonderful sort of swagger.

His hips are cocked, which sets his whole body in motion,

and then again this very thin touch, these little almost washes

with which he describes the face, the brow and the nose

and that wonderful little mouth, all within a perfect shape of the oval.

And I think it's an extraordinarily moving image

of a boy becoming a man.

So he establishes the figure

by, on the left side of the composition,

really creating a kind of stability and solidity

and then, as you move across to the right side of the canvas,

things start to sort of undulate and curve

and the whole composition sort of starts to slide to the right.

This is a game that he plays with still life very frequently,

where he'll set up orbs and jars and plates on a rectangular table

and it feels very staid and secure

and then the longer you look at it

the more you realise that everything is floating and moving and instability

where you thought things were fairly tied down.

So it's his constant game

of creating a convincing, solid evocation of visual reality

but at the same time complicating that experience

as one of artifice,

as one of a game played with coloured paint on a two-dimensional surface.

As an experience, as a visual experience standing in front of the painting,

it's incredibly alive

and it almost feels like something sort of spiritual or philosophical

as you're visually experiencing what Cézanne has conveyed

about this figure or with this figure about reality or humanity.

I think seeing Cézanne's portraits in the context of a portrait gallery

is especially interesting and obviously the context here in London

is quite different from the context in either Paris or in Washington.

What's unique about the exhibition here

is that we're focusing on portraiture first and foremost,

so portraiture as a medium.

And of course the National Portrait Gallery

was the first portrait gallery in the world when it was founded in 1856.

And I think the origins are quite interesting.

It was essentially founded

to collect portraits of eminent British men and women

that had made British history

and to reflect on the idea of achievement, nationhood,

biography and character.

So although we live now

in an era saturated by portraits or self-portraits,

whether it's selfies or Facebook or Instagram or Snapchat,

perhaps we're more resonant now than ever before

because people have this great interest in identity, self-portraiture

and representation.

I think it has been lined... - Yes.

There's liner's paper there, and this is the original edge.

Yes, you see there it's the same thing

but you can see clearly that that's just the edge of the painting...

I think there's many factors that make an exhibition successful

and I wouldn't say that's just to do with attendance,

i.e. the idea that an exhibition is a blockbuster and successful

if lots of people come and see it.

The issues around a great exhibition as a former curator myself

is the integrity with which it's realised.

And that really begins with someone's vision

of what the exhibition should do and say and achieve.

And then the question is how you execute that

and explain and convey that to an audience.

It's not that clear... - Top, bottom and left edge...

Maybe they've just got their left and right muddled?

It's definitely visible at the top. - Maybe.

I think that's the abrasion...

That abrasion has always been there, so it's not like it's...

What height are we going to because this is hanging higher?

It can't be centred on that because it's going to be too big.

Yes, let's look at it again with that one.

It's good we can look right into his bloodshot eyes.

It's OK. Yeah, that's good.

November 1894

Paul is so peculiar, so fearful of seeing new faces,

that I'm afraid he may let us down and not come to dinner,

despite his wish to meet you.

What a pity that this man has not had more support in his life!

He is a true artist who suffers too much self-doubt.

He needs to be cheered up.

This is one of his beautiful works, even though it is unfinished.

The library, the papers on the table, the little Rodin plaster sculpture,

the artificial rose that he brought at the start of the sessions,

everything is of the first rank.

And of course there is also a character in this scene,

which is painted with meticulous care,

with a richness and an incomparable harmony of tones.

He only sketched in the face, however,

always saying, "Hm... Perhaps I'll leave that to the end."

Alas, the end never came.

One fine day, Cézanne sent for his easel, brushes and paints,

writing to me that the project was clearly beyond him,

he had been wrong to undertake it,

and apologising for abandoning it.

I insisted that he come back, telling him what I thought,

that he had started a very fine work and that he should finish it.

He came back,

and for a week he seemed to work,

adding fine films of colour, as only he knew how,

always retaining the freshness and sparkle of the painting.

But his heart was no longer in it.

He left for Aix, leaving behind the portrait,

as he had left so many other paintings,

things of wonderful vision and realisation.

Aix, 6th July 1895

I had to abandon for the time being the study that I'd started of Geffroy,

who placed himself so generously at my disposal,

and I'm a little embarrassed at the meagre results I obtained,

especially after so many sittings,

and successive bursts of enthusiasm and discouragement.

So I've landed up home

which I perhaps should never have left

to embark on the chimerical pursuit of art.

30th April 1896

My dear Monsieur Gasquet,

You do not see, then, the sad state to which I am reduced.

No longer my own master, the man who does not exist.

Yet you, who would be a philosopher, want to finish me off?

But I curse the Geffroys and the other scoundrels

who, for a 50-franc article, have drawn the attention of the public to me.

All my life, I have worked to be able to earn my living,

but I thought that one could paint well

without attracting attention to one's private life.

Certainly an artist wishes to improve himself intellectually

as much as possible,

but the man should remain obscure.

The pleasure must be found in the study.

If it had been left to me,

I should have stayed in my corner with a few friends from the studio

with whom I might go out for the odd drink.

August 1897

My dear Solari,

On Sunday, if you're free, come visit.

If you come in the morning, you'll find me around 8am in the quarry

where you drew with me before.

Then if you would like to, we will have lunch in Tholonet.

You must come eat a duck with me.

Done in olives. The duck, of course.

26th September 1897

Dear Gasquet,

Art is a harmony parallel to nature.

What can those imbeciles be thinking

who say that the artist always falls short of nature?

Aix, 1st November 1897

Dear Solari,

I received your letter telling me of your forthcoming marriage.

I have no doubt that in your future companion

you will find the support indispensable to every man

who has a long and often arduous career ahead of him.

I know your writing brings you difficulties

but be brave, as you have to, to succeed.

By the time these few words reach you,

you'll have heard of the death of my poor mother.


Aix, 3rd February 1902

My dear Monsieur Aurenche,

I haven't been able to feel close to anyone here.

Sometimes I have flights of enthusiasm,

more often painful disappointments.

Such is life.

When you are sad, think of old friends and do not give up art altogether.

It is the most intimate expression of who we are.

Aix, March 1902

Dear Monsieur Aurenche,

I have a lot of work to do.

That is what happens to anyone who is someone serious.

That is the only true recourse we have here on earth

to take our mind off the worries that hound us.

Aix, 8th July 1902

Dear Gasquet,

I am pursuing success through work.

I despise all living painters except Monet and Renoir,

and I want to succeed through work.

Aix, 9th January 1903

Dear Monsieur Vollard,

I work tenaciously.

I glimpse the Promised Land.

Will I be like the great leader of the Hebrews?

Will I be able to enter?

I've made some progress.

Why so late and laboriously?

Is art really a priesthood that requires the pure in heart

who completely surrender themselves to it?

Cézanne, when looking at his correspondence,

is always very kind to Vollard.

He considers that Vollard helped him

and it is true.

In 1895 Cézanne is almost 60.

He has not yet had a solo exhibition in Paris

and the first one who is going to hold this exhibition

is a young gallery owner,

newly established in Paris,

who is therefore interested in his work

and holds an exhibition in 1895 of his paintings.

Then we have this magnificent anecdote about the portrait of Vollard.

Vollard recounts the story.

After 115 horribly long sessions

he asks if he is happy with his painting.

Cézanne tells him, "Yes, I am not too unhappy with the front,"

the front of the shirt.

And when asked why he had not painted a tiny square on his hand,

Cézanne told him,

"I do not want to be wrong."

"I shall go to the Louvre this afternoon

and if I find the right values I could finish these two small areas."

Very small but they still exist on the picture today.

And he explained to Vollard by telling him,

"If I am wrong on these two small squares,

I would be obliged to redo the whole picture."

We're here in his studio.

You have large bay windows with the northern light,

because it is a constant light.

After his mother's death,

the Jas de Bouffan was in co-ownership with his two sisters

and his brother-in-law requested division to sell the estate.

With money Cézanne had two solutions,

either to buy out his sisters

but he'd have no more money to live on,

or let them sell and he'd have to live elsewhere.

He chose the second solution

and he quickly bought this land,

which suited him because it was far from the city centre,

and with his plans he built the studio he had always wanted.

My grandfather, so Paul Cézanne's son,

was first with his birth, then as a little boy,

finally the link with life

that was very important as an anchor

for the painter in his daily life.

And then, growing up, there was this mutual respect that developed

and very quickly, as a young man,

my grandfather found himself in charge

of all the problems of everyday life the painter did not like.

He took over and managed the day-to-day,

because, in fact, apart from his painting Cézanne was a little lost.

Aix, 22nd February 1903

Dear Monsieur Camoin,

Very tired, 64 years of age...

My son, now in Paris, is a great philosopher.

By that I don't mean the equal of Diderot, Voltaire or Rousseau.

He is rather touchy, incurious, but a good boy.

Aix, 13th September 1903

Dear Monsieur Camoin,

Thomas Couture used to tell his pupils,

"Keep good company, that is, go to the Louvre."

But after seeing the Great Masters who repose there,

one must hasten to leave

and, through nature, revive in oneself the artistic instincts and sensations

that reside within us.

Aix, 25th January 1904

My dear Monsieur Aurenche,

My realisation in art I believe I attain more each day,

if a little laboriously.

For if the keen sensation of nature, and I certainly have that,

is the necessary basis for all artistic conception,

on which rests the grandeur and beauty of future work,

knowledge of the means of expressing our emotion is no less essential,

and is acquired only through very long experience.

Aix, 15th April 1904

Dear Monsieur Bernard,

to treat nature in terms of the cylinder, the sphere and the cone,

everything put in perspective,

so that each side of an object, of a plane, leads to a central point.

Lines parallel to the horizon give breadth.

Lines perpendicular to this horizon give depth.

Now, we men experience nature more in terms of depth than surface,

whence the need to introduce into our vibrations of light,

represented by reds and yellows,

a sufficient quantity of blue tones, to give a sense of atmosphere.

Aix, 12th May 1904

Dear Bernard,

Nature appears to me very complex,

and the improvements to be made are never-ending.

One must see one's model clearly and feel it exactly right,

and then express oneself with distinction and force.

Taste is the best judge.

It is rare.

Art speaks only to an excessively small group of people.

The artist should scorn all opinion

not based on the intelligent observation of character.

Aix, 11th November 1904

Dear Monsieur Vollard,

A little tardily, I acknowledge receipt of your transfer of 2,000 francs,

and I enclose herewith two signatures.

My father is delighted with the success of the Salon d'Automne

and he is most grateful to you

for the care you have taken with this exhibition.

He will be very happy to see the four walls

of the room that was graciously devoted to him.

I await the first batch of photographs that you are about to send.

My father is as keen as ever on his art, as you can imagine.

The canvas of the bathers is making progress.

Aix, 1905

My dear Bernard,

The Louvre is the book from which we learn to read.

However, we should not be content with holding on to beautiful nature.

Let us try to capture its spirit, let us seek to express ourselves

according to our individual temperaments.

Time and reflection modify our vision, moreover,

and at last we reach understanding.

When we touch Cézanne we are touching an icon.

And when you see how his way of addressing the portrait changes

all the resonances which appear in the great Picassos of the Rose Period,

in Modigliani, in Giacometti,

in all these great artists who will make history in the 20th century,

you understand why Cézanne is

this great intermediary between the 19th and the 20th centuries.

He was an extraordinary portrait painter

and probably the most important since Rembrandt

in that he is really painting humanity.

They are, some of them, difficult paintings

if one is thinking about portraits as images of faces

but the expression is in the whole canvas.

As Matisse said, "Expression for me isn't in gesture or in face"

but in the whole composition,"

and this is a major gift that Cézanne gave to modern painting.

Cézanne's tone is completely unique.

It's almost as if it escaped from its period,

already far in advance,

moving towards the abstract.

And that's why, I think

that artists such as Picasso, Braque and others

saw in Cézanne a forefather, a figurehead,

because he paved the way to this possibility.

Cézanne is a painter's painter, above all.

It's difficult painting.

You have to go engage with it.

But all the great artists of his generation

and younger artists who followed him

truly appreciated the absolute nature

of the vision and mission

of someone who was essentially a modern artist.

Aix, 3rd August 1906

My dear Paul,

I get up early

and it's only really between five and eight that I can lead my own life,

by the time the heat becomes stupefying

and saps the brain so much I can't even think of painting.

I caught bronchitis.

I've abandoned homeopathy for old-fashioned mixed syrups.

It's a shame that I can't give many demonstrations

of my ideas and sensations.

Long live the Goncourts, Pissarro,

and all those who have a propensity for colour,

which represents light and air.

I know that with the terrible heat you and Maman will be tired,

so it's a good thing that you were both able to get back to Paris

in time to find yourselves in a less burning atmosphere.

I must remind you not to forget the slippers.

The ones I have are just about giving up on me.

Aix, 26th August 1906

My dear Paul,

When I forget to write to you,

it's because I lose track of time a little.

It's been terribly hot,

and in addition my nervous system must be much weakened.

Painting is the best thing for me.

I go to the river by carriage every day.

It's nice enough there,

but my weakness is getting me down.

I'm going to go up to the studio.

I got up late, after five.

I'm still working happily,

and yet sometimes the light is so bad that nature seems ugly to me.

So one has to choose.

My pen is hardly moving.

I embrace you both with all my heart,

and remember me to all the friends who still think of me across time and space.

A big hug for you and Maman.

Aix, 8th September 1906

My dear Paul,

Today... It's nearly 11. A new heat wave.

The air is overheated, not a hint of a breeze.

The only thing such a temperature is good for is to expand metals,

encourage the sale of drinks, make beer merchants happy,

an industry that seems to be attaining respectable proportions in Aix,

and swell the pretentions of the intellectuals of my country,

a load of old sods, idiots and fools.

The exceptions, and there may be some, keep their heads down.

Finally, I must tell you that as a painter

I'm becoming more clear-sighted in front of nature,

but the realisation of my sensations is still very laboured.

I can't achieve the intensity that builds in my senses.

I don't have that magnificent richness of colour that enlivens nature.

Here, the motifs multiply,

the same subject from a different angle

provides a fascinating subject for study,

and so varied that I think I could occupy myself for months without moving,

leaning now more to the right,

now more to the left.

My dear Paul,

I have the utmost confidence in your management of my affairs.

Your father, who embraces you and Maman

Aix, 15th October 1906

My dear Paul,

Everything goes by with frightening speed.

I'm not doing too badly.

I look after myself, I eat well.

My dear Paul,

To give you the satisfactory news you want,

I would have to be 20 years younger.

I repeat, I eat well,

and a little boost to morale would do me a power of good,

but only work can give me that.

All my compatriots are idiots beside me.

I embrace you and Maman.

Your father, Paul Cézanne