Of the final one hundred paintings that Paul Cezanne painted in his final years, only seven were portraits. This fact gives some scale to the huge achievement of the National Portrait Gallery in sourcing and uniting Cezanne’s masterpieces for its latest exhibition, Cezanne’s Portraits. The remarkable display spans the artist’s career, his sitters and his various techniques.
There is of course risk in attempting to explore the free aforementioned variables – exhibitions more often consider either the artist’s technique, or the artist’s sitters, or line the masterpieces up chronologically, rather than the three together. However, Cezanne’s Portraits handles the triumvirate in an orderly, and sensible fashion, which leaves the viewer confident that (s)he has really learned something by the time (s)he gets to the exit.
In the same fashion, it is clever how the exhibition pulls together the variety of Cezanne’s sitters from leading thinkers, writers and critics (his friends Gustav Geffroy, Emile Zola and Paul Alexis), to his family (wife Hortense Fiquet and son Paul) and passers by who caught his eye (‘Woman with a Cafetiere,’ ‘Old Woman with a Rosary,’ ‘Man With Crossed Arms’), displaying them all on equal footing (tres francais aussi). Hortense is the exception: Cezanne’s wife absorbs more of the exhibition’s attention than the other sitters which, we are told, is accurate to the artist’s reality: of the 200 portraits painted by the artist during his career, 29 were of his wife. We here see how Cezanne used portraiture to develop his style and his method.
Of course, Cezanne’s use of building form with paint was probably what inspired both Matisse and Picasso to call him ‘the father of us all’ and it is this cross that Cezanne has to bear. Cezanne’s Portraits tears him away from this fashionable reputation, instead scrutinising the artist as a master in his own right.
At the risk of sounding like some art pseud, all poignant exhibitions should, I believe, leave space between the audience and the object displayed. Cezanne’s Portraits proffers lots of information, but leaves the viewer with breathing space to consider the artist’s work and this is arguably due to the artist himself. Cezanne refused to take commissions for portraits and he did not sell a single portrait in his lifetime. These portraits, it would seem, were painted for the purpose of observation, analysis and artistic development – not to please or to sell or to show off. This again emphasised by the presentation of Cezanne’s three self-portraits, more particularly in the comparative study of the two Self Portrait with Bowler Hats, hung adjacently.
Cezanne Portraits is therefore a real testament to curator John Elderfield’s talents – not that he is short of accolades: Elderfield (of MoMA) has masterminded vast retrospectives devoted to Henri Matisse, Kurt Schwitters and Willem de Koonig. Here he works together with Mary Morton and Xavier Rey. It is a real treat to have such a remarkable exhibition here in London and well worth visiting before it heads to Washington in the New Year.