Cezanne Portraits exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery review *****

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Cezanne Portraits

National Portrait Gallery, 14th December 2017

Frankly they could have hung the 50 or so paintings here upside down and turned the lights off. I would still have given it 5 stars. It’s Cezanne. The painter who showed all the other painters who have come since how to paint,  by showing them how all the other painters who came before had painted.

Line, mass, volume, light, colour. These are the preoccupations of all painters for sure but it was Cezanne’s obsession with seeing the underlying structure of things that was his gift to the world.

If this meant making the subjects of his portraits sit for days on end then so be it. If this meant working and re-working tiny parts of his paintings or giving up entirely if he didn’t get it right then so be it. Clearly if you are not going to churn out sycophantic likenesses to order then you ain’t going to drum up too much business. So it was with Cezanne. Though fortunately once banker Dad was on board with the painting gig, our Paul didn’t have to worry too much about earning a living. which meant he could paint the same thing, or person, again, and again, and again, and again, and again …. until he, rather than subject/buyer, was satisfied. Though by all accounts he rarely was.

This then is why we have so many likenesses of the same subject, Dad, Mum, Uncles. Mates, son Paul, and, of course, wife Hortense (painted 29 times). This exhibition set out to collate and show these “repeats” to best advantage, and this, together with the insight into his early and late portraiture, is what made the exhibition truly revelatory to me. Odds are, one way or another, if you have a healthy interest in art and seek out most of the great collections in the Western world. you will get to see an awful lot of the paintings on display here. But to see the same subjects, hanging together, is properly thrilling.

Cezanne wasn’t interested in delving into the psychology of his sitters. No journey into the soul, or other such claptrap, on show here. Nor was he interested in mimetic likeness, with or without flattery, in contrast to the portraiture of the previous three centuries. Photography changed all that. Nor, as far as I can see, did he care too much about the social context in which his subjects might be placed. Few of the more mature portraits have much in the way of backdrop or background. The outdoors, famously in the context of that bloody hill, inspired PC but not really when it came to pictures of people. He found it just too difficult apparently, (though right at the end there is a dark, disturbing picture of his gardener, M Valier, ostensibly outdoors though you would be hard pressed to believe it).

On the other hand though I don’t think Cezanne wanted to show himself in these portraits either, even in the self-portraits. I reckon for a lot of the Impressionist, Post Impressionists, Expressionists, Post Expressionists, and anyway else who dabbled in portraiture in the C20, the picture often says as much about the artist as the sitter. PC only wanted to capture what he saw. Nothing more, nothing less. Most of the time his subjects are doing nothing other than sitting and looking.

The first couple of rooms show PC’s early experiments with portraiture. The influences of, variously, Courbet, Manet, Pissarro, and in a different way, Zola, are explained. We start to see how the techniques are refined, bolder brushstrokes, use of the palette knife, maybe too much at first, (the renderings of his Uncle Dominique), the building of the whole from little patches of colour, the “constructive brushstrokes” that evolved from his landscapes. Repetitions, eliminations, areas where ground is absent. To capture light, for sure, but also to render shape, mass, volume, in an entirely new way. Making the animate, not inanimate, but very, very still, and properly intense. Cutting everything out between eye and mark. Breaking it down to build it back up. Dialectical painting. The room with the multiple, depersonalised portraits of Hortense is where it all makes sense.

Always the same but always different. Obsessive. Not giving a f*ck what anyone else thought. A cast iron nutter. All, as any fool knows, perfect maxims for any artist to follow.

There has, I gather, never been a comparable exhibition of Cezanne’s portraits. It took a decade to pull this together. Cezanne produced around 160 portraits out of a total 1000 works. That means around a third are gathered together here. If you were in Paris last year you will no doubt have seen this. If you are in London now and haven’t seen this you are a mug. Sorry to be so rude but it’s true. Fortunately you have a month still to put this right. Exhibition of the year in 2017. Obviously. Once in a lifetime opportunity. Probably. So get on with it. Now. And if you are anywhere near Washington, (DC not Tyne and Wear), from March this year, book now.

Try this. Look at someone you know very well. Look at them again. Then stare at them. For a vey long time. Think about what you see. It is a revelation. Look at a Cezanne portrait. Really look. That is what he was about. Never really occurred to me to do this until I started reading about “art”. Just goes to show. You may look but you rarely see. Of course it also means you will be prone to spouting all manner of dreadful, pretentious guff.

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