Cézanne Portraits review – clay pipes and rustling skirts captured by a questioning genius
Source:theguardian Author:Adrian Searle Date: 2017-10-26 Size:
Perhaps everything Paul Cézanne did was a portrait, whether he was painting mountains ……

Certainty and doubt … Madame Cézanne.Photograph: © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Perhaps everything Paul Cézanne did was a portrait, whether he was painting mountains, fruit, the land, the light, people. Whatever he paints, Cézanne paints himself observing, amplifying, flattening, skipping over one thing to alight on another. Sometimes I think his paintings are about to unravel. This keeps them alive.

Coarseness and delicacy, observation and invention – as if the two could ever be distinguished – certainty and doubt. There is so much to Cézanne. What there is most of all is a spirit of inquiry and curiosity, about the things he painted and about painting itself. Madame Cézanne seated at her sewing, or doing nothing at all; a man with a clay pipe enduring being painted and wondering, perhaps, at the point of it all; Cézanne’s father reading the newspaper, indulging his painter son by staying still, seated forward in a high-backed armchair that has as much presence as the man who occupies it. Cézanne used the same chair as a throne for his affectionate portrait of the artist Achille Empéraire. A misshapen little man of great, stilled dignity, and one of two paintings (the other is Cézanne’s Self Portrait with Palette, 1886-7) whose omission I really miss in the London leg of this travelling exhibition, the first to focus only on Cézanne’s portraits since 1910.

Self Portrait in a Bowler Hat, 1892, by Paul Cézanne. Photograph: National Portrait Gallery, London

What a strange and wayward and questioning painter he was. He could make a drama of the head of his son, and the biomorphic shape of the top of a wing-backed chair, leaning in towards the boy like a second protagonist. Or the black abstract shape of his uncle’s waistcoat, unrelieved except for a couple of red buttons. The chromatic restlessness of his wife’s skirt, rustling against itself. His paintings are full of such great moments, things that might otherwise go unregarded.

Cézanne’s first self-portrait here, based on an 1861 photograph, and painted the following year, is saturnine, brooding, malevolent. There is much that seems wrong with it – the ear that does not quite belong, that disconcerting burning red in the corners of his eyes, the one eye that fixes you, the other rolling up under the lid. This is a man you’d avoid in a bar. In the photograph he worked from, he’s almost benign. This was Cézanne, the painter of murders, abductions and phantasmagorical feasts, before the immediate world about him, his friends and his family and the people and places he knew claimed him. What really claimed him was painting itself.

In one pair of paintings he sports a bowler hat, looking over his shoulder, like an urbane man in the crowd aware of being observed, and turning in response. In his earlier 1860s portraits he made a long series of his Uncle Dominique – turbaned, in a cap, dressed as a lawyer, a monk, in a smock and a fancy blue cap. All painted thickly, with a knife, both figures and backgrounds have the same heaving, glutinous quality. The paint seems to spread from one central, often circular highlight on his uncle’s nose. This claggy treatment verges on a kind of caricature, yet for all that has great moments of abbreviated description – the tassel on the blue cap is as succinct detail, painted with an exact brevity. There is something puppet-like about the heads. You feel you are watching Cézanne trying to understand the human head and human expression. It took time for his subjects to truly occupy their surroundings, for his sitters to inhabit their clothes (somehow different from merely being dressed in them) and their painted bodies. There are places where he makes a shorthand abbreviation and others where form is really modelled by light and by paint, and a multiplicity of touches.

Madame Cézanne in a Yellow Chair, 1888-90 by Paul Cézanne. Photograph: The Art Institute of Chicago

Cézanne is never glib, never wholly at ease or facile. His art is full of distortions, things left unsaid, or unpainted. Every touch, shift in colour, decision and revision has purpose. The more I look at his portraits of Hortense, his wife, the more I think the pursed lips are about to unglue themselves. The serial nature of these images affirms how static they are (only the painter’s position seems to have rotated, the light and background different in each one), yet the face itself marks a shift in mood. How magical these paintings are.

When I was young, I thought Cézanne was boring. Grumpy man with beard who only wanted to paint. All those apples, that small Provençal mountain again and again, the repetitive subjects and brushstrokes, the ordinariness of his subjects. Out of all this he made extraordinarily complex paintings. It has become a cliche to call Cézanne the father of modernism, which already has too many fathers. But his paintings keep on multiplying and going in different directions, even as I look. Tremendous.

[Editor] 姜鑫

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