Paul Cézanne’s Portrait de l’artiste au fond rose was probably created in 1875. It’s on loan to the Art Institute of Chicago from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris for this exhibition. Credit: Adrien Didierjean for RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource NY

“Cézanne, he’s the greatest of us all.”—Claude Monet to Georges Clemenceau in conversation, cited in translation in The Paintings of Paul Cézanne: A Catalogue Raisonné (trans. John Rewald, Abrams, 1996).

There are some entities and influences on our work that we take for granted, as though they were always there and it’s impossible to conceive of a world without them. I felt that way at the Chicago Theatre over a decade ago listening to Leonard Cohen in concert. The idea that the old man in the sharp suit on stage wrote all those songs was a circle I had trouble squaring. Same with Cézanne. For anyone involved with perceptual painting, he’s like a giant boulder blocking the path. No way to ignore it or pretend it’s not there. No turning back either, unless you’re content playacting an alternate reality. What Cézanne did was figure out how to render the act of seeing.

It’s intimidating for a painter like me to write about Paul Cézanne. It’s like trying to describe or explain God. Why bother? No words suffice. It just is and what I do couldn’t exist without what this guy did over a hundred years ago. It’s not a debt that can be repaid or even adequately grasped.

It’s a vision that centers subjectivity, motion, and change, rather than stability, hierarchy, or order. Probably no coincidence that he worked out his methods at the same time when Nietzsche was killing God. Nobody who believes in a benevolent creator fashioning and guiding the universe could see their surroundings in the slippery and undependable way Cézanne saw his environment.

And yet he was also very flawed as an artist. His figures—especially when unclothed—are hopelessly clunky and wooden. They rarely relate in any convincing way to their environment. The bathers are the worst. It’s some sort of ersatz Eden that he keeps trying to evoke, but what comes out is more like the cheapo decor of a Greek eatery.

Like many of the innovators of his time, Cézanne came up in the French academic system and utterly failed its dogmatic, leaden course of study. Had he excelled, he’d likely be forgotten now. It was his inability to make bacchanales, formal portraits, or history paintings that forced him into finding another way. Yet the remnants of that staid education reverberate throughout his career. 

Through 9/5: Thu 11 AM-8 PM, Fri-Mon 11 AM-5 PM, closed Tue-Wed; Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan, $7 ticket required in addition to general admission ($14-$25 but free days and discounts listed on website);

To promote “Cézanne,” (an exhibition currently on display at the Art Institute of Chicago organized by the institute with the input of the Tate Modern) the museum chose to reproduce the lousy epic last bathers painting across three flags attached to its facade. What draws art professionals to those lumpy ladies? They’re featureless and often have two left legs. They look like they were cut-and-pasted into a fantasy forest without much bother about reconciling figure and ground.

It’s reassuring that Cézanne was such a bad figure painter. Makes him almost human. When people are clothed and he knows them well, he does much better. There’s one really good self-portrait in the show: Self-Portrait with Pink Background (Portrait de l’artiste au fond rose), created by Cézanne around 1875) that underscores what a taciturn, disagreeable man he must have been. The expression on that mug seems to wonder why the viewer has intruded on his solitude, except that he himself is also the viewer! Not a guy I would ever want to meet. Best to leave him alone to paint his mountains, trees, fruit, and bottles and marvel at the results.

The first time I visited the show, in the members-only preview days, the galleries were packed. I went back and forth through the rooms a few times, noting the four or five pictures I knew I’d return to on future visits. The only major series I missed is his card players. He painted at least four—The Card Players (Les Joueurs de cartes), which lives at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, is probably my favorite—but only one sketch of a single card player is included in this exhibition. 

The biggest surprise is an earth-toned oil painting of Paris rooftops (Paris Rooftops, 1882). It feels like the kind of composition I’ve attempted myself many times. I didn’t know Cézanne had tried it too. He’s mainly a village and nature guy, rather than a city creature. This one almost looks like an Albert Marquet (1875-1947). Marquet is a big influence on me, but much more manageable and human-scaled than Cézanne. Strolling through, I remembered what Barnett Newman said about Cézanne’s apples in the 1972 documentary Painters Painting: that they were like super apples, that they oppressed him. 

There’s an ascetic remove in the best of Cézanne’s paintings. Like they were assembled by a being either beyond or incapable of everyday emotions. It can be off-putting sometimes. But when these pictures connect, they alter the way you see the world with your own eyes.

The shifting perspectives, the jagged horizon line, the endless retries to capture the same motifs that will always elude him. Cézanne’s mission is about conveying how it is to be: day to day, hour to hour, moment to moment. It’s often not a comforting or welcoming world that he shows, but it’s one I recognize all too well.


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