Why everything we think we know about Cezanne is wrong

'As prickly as a hedgehog’: Cezanne's Self-portrait in front of pink background, 1875 - RMN/ Grand Palais/Adrien Didierjean
'As prickly as a hedgehog’: Cezanne's Self-portrait in front of pink background, 1875 - RMN/ Grand Palais/Adrien Didierjean

On January 9 1903, 10 days before his 64th birthday, Paul Cezanne wrote a ­letter to his dealer, Ambroise Vollard. After decades of obscurity and critical disdain, the French artist was at last, thanks to Vollard, enjoying some success. “I work doggedly,” he reported from Aix, his birthplace in Provence, adding: “I glimpse the Promised Land.”

By comparing himself to Moses, was he being ­arrogant or tongue-in-cheek? We can’t be sure. ­Yet, this letter to Vollard set the template for how we’ve tended to think about Cezanne in the 116 years since his death.

In a sense, the post-impressionist painter – the ­subject of a forthcoming exhibition at Tate Modern – was like a Judaic prophet, leading his acolytes to the “promised land” of modernism. At the turn of the 20th century, ardent Cezanne-worship was already aflame.

Claude Monet owned 14 paintings (and a watercolour) by Cezanne, three of which hung in his ­bedroom: “Cezanne,” he reportedly once said, “he’s the greatest of us all.” “How does he do it?” marvelled Pierre-Auguste Renoir. “He cannot put two touches of colour onto a canvas without it already being an achievement.” Paul Gauguin, too, was besotted.

By the mid-20th century, Cezanne’s paintings were said to have engendered entire movements – “isms” –and avant-garde schools: fauvism, cubism, abstract art, the so-called “return to order” of the 1920s – all, supposedly, were built upon the rock that was Cezanne. For Henri Matisse, he was “a kind of god of painting”; for Pablo Picasso, “the father of us all”.

Cezanne's The Eternal Feminine (c. 1877) was inspired by newspaper cartoons - Corbis Historical
Cezanne's The Eternal Feminine (c. 1877) was inspired by newspaper cartoons - Corbis Historical

And, because the shadow cast across the 20th ­century by the man dubbed the Master of Aix was so long, art historians still talk of the “Cezanne effect”. So, when he told Vollard that he’d glimpsed the ­promised land, it was more than a mirage.

Yet, in many ways, our obsession with the “Cezanne effect” – considering him only in hindsight, as the great forerunner of modern art – has prevented us from seeing the man himself, on his own terms. Which is where Tate’s new exhibition comes in.

When it was announced, I assumed, somewhat cynically, that it would be a cash cow. His still lifes of apples and views of Montagne Sainte-Victoire are some of the most popular (and expensive) pictures in the world.

The dramatic structure of his biography, moreover, is well known. Against the wishes of an overbearing father, who wanted him to become a lawyer, he tried, unsuccessfully, to wow Paris with his art, after being enticed to the French capital by his childhood friend, the novelist Émile Zola. During the 1870s, his efforts as an impressionist only confirmed his public status as a laughing stock.

But, after this awkward beginning and difficult middle act, there was a stupendous finale, as Cezanne made of impressionism, as he put it, “something solid and enduring, like the art in the museums”. What is there left to add?

For paintings such as Still Life with Apples (1893-94), Cezanne propped fruit up on coins - The J. Paul Getty Museum
For paintings such as Still Life with Apples (1893-94), Cezanne propped fruit up on coins - The J. Paul Getty Museum

The answer is: a surprising amount. In the catalogue, Frances Morris, Tate Modern’s director, makes much of the fact that the new exhibition – the biggest survey in this country since 1996 – is the first “to present the artist’s name the way he signed it, without an accent on the first ‘e’.” Perhaps this sounds like an unimportant detail. Yet, it indicates (pithily, I think) the curators’ ambition to strip away, or at least “unsettle”, many of the starry-eyed “myths and clichés” that, they suggest, have “obscured” Cezanne. It’s time, they argue, to “un-know… long-held beliefs about him”.

Some of these, recent scholarship reveals, were based on misunderstandings. One mistranslation, for instance, resulted in the idea that Cezanne’s portraits required up to 500 sittings. Yes, he often worked slowly, taking an age to apply each careful patch of paint. Yet, explains Tate curator Natalia Sidlina, “he could paint very quickly en plein air, in the best tradition of the impressionists.”

Cezanne’s much-quoted aphorism that “With an apple, I will astonish Paris”, is also prob­ably apocryphal. Returning to the sources, we ­discover that it was reported by an art critic, Gustave Geffroy, who only met Cezanne during the mid-1890s, by which time he’d already conquered the French capital.

Then there’s Cezanne’s long-established reputation for barbarous, rough-mannered unsociability. Despite his bourgeois upbringing, this proud native of the Midi often behaved like a blunt, uncouth yokel, speaking with a thick Provençal accent, caring little for his wardrobe, and refraining from washing for several days at a time.

In 1894, he was invited to Monet’s home in Giverny, where another guest, the American painter Matilda Lewis, recalled that “Monsieur Cezanne” resembled “a cut-throat with large red eyeballs standing out from his head”. During dinner, he scraped his soup plate, and – quelle horreur! – ate meat like a peasant, straight from the bone. “As prickly as a hedgehog,” was Renoir’s summation of his character. An ­obstinate so-and-so, then.

Yet, according to Sidlina, Cezanne was “one of the most educated people of his generation, who spoke Latin – which peppered his letters”. At school, he won literary prizes; in adulthood, he corresponded with intellectuals.

An elusive and contradictory figure: Cezanne photographed in 1905 - Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
An elusive and contradictory figure: Cezanne photographed in 1905 - Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

He was also, for someone supposedly so coarse, a ­surprisingly sensitive soul. One visitor who turned up in 1900 said that Cezanne, in old age, had a “dejected air”, and confided that he found life “terrifying”: “C’est effrayant, la vie.”

Thus, for Sidlina, his country bumpkin act was exactly that: a performance designed to antagonise bourgeois Parisian taste. Certainly, this “sublime little grimalkin”, as DH Lawrence once described him, had the stealthy, independent qualities of a cat.

What, though, of his self-imposed seclusion, the long spells during which he supposedly kept himself to himself in Provence? Wasn’t he essentially apolitical and out of touch, refusing to engage with the issues or ­fashions of his day? Not so, says Morris: “We mustn’t pretend that Cezanne was up in his ivory tower with the door closed, looking at an apple.”

In fact, he was well-versed in the politics and ­popular culture of 19th century France. The Eternal Feminine (c. 1877), for instance, drew upon newspaper cartoons. A supine nude from the mid-1880s, ­traditionally identified as the mythological figure Leda, reworked a label from a champagne bottle. The source for The Conversation (1870-71) was a plate in a fashion magazine.

For Sidlina, Cezanne’s modern interest in appropriating imagery may explain why he refrained from working with life models. Perhaps he wasn’t as shy and prudish as many have made out.

Even contemporary debates about abolitionism may be detected in his oeuvre. One of the show’s big surprises will be Scipio (1866-68), which depicts a black model (about whom little is known) from the Académie Suisse, an independent, informal art school in Paris.

Wearing thick denim work trousers and sitting on a stool, Scipio is seen from behind so that his naked back becomes the focus. According to the American artist Ellen Gallagher, the turbulent strokes depicting his flesh, including several welts of red, may evoke the scar tissue on the backs of enslaved men recorded in etched illustrations in journals and ­magazines at the time.

Monet, who treasured this painting and hung it in his bedroom, considered it “a work of the greatest strength”. For decades, it was held to be a cornerstone of Cezanne’s early achievements – until, in 1950, it entered the collection of the São Paulo Museum of Art. At this point, in Western Europe at least, it began to fade from view. Sidlina calls it a “forgotten masterpiece”.

Scipio (1866-68), Cezanne's portrait of a black model, has largely been forgotten by Western Europe - Art Heritage / Alamy Stock Photo
Scipio (1866-68), Cezanne's portrait of a black model, has largely been forgotten by Western Europe - Art Heritage / Alamy Stock Photo

Does this mean that Cezanne is about to become embroiled in yet another ding-dong about identity politics? It’s only a year since Tate Modern’s ill-judged exhibition The Making of Rodin lambasted the French sculptor for his colonialist, sexist attitudes. “A few of that exhibition’s texts,” concedes Morris, “got up people’s noses.”

The Cezanne show, for all its moments of “gentle disruption”, will remain “very respectful”, she promises. For Morris, the point of staging an exhibition like this is to ask: “Is modernism still relevant a hundred years on?” Impassioned contributions from artists such as ­Phyllida Barlow, Lubaina Himid and Luc Tuymans, as well as Gallagher, suggest it is – although none writes about Cezanne with quite the genuflecting adoration of their 20th-century predecessors.

Yet, for the art historian T.J. Clark, whose rumin­ative new book about Cezanne, If These Apples Should Fall, was published recently, the question of the artist’s ongoing “relevance” (“a horrifying word,” he tells me) is anathema. Instead, he prefers to explain Cezanne’s importance by emphasising the underlying unease or weirdness of his pictures – a quality the French call inquiétude.

Everything in Cezanne’s work is worryingly aslant. Elements that should align often don’t. Passages where we expect completion are left ­deliberately unfinished. Even those famous arrangements of fruit appear precarious, as if they’re about to  tumble onto the floor – an unsettling effect ­apparently achieved by propping up apples with coins. Cezanne’s still lifes, in other words, are ­anything but static. Their real subject was arguably a hurtling modern world that, as the artist saw it, was out of joint.

For Clark, Cezanne remains an “elusive”, contradictory figure: “Everything you can say about the ­standard view of him – that he was apolitical, ­disturbed, alienated – you can find evidence to the contrary, too,” he tells me.

“So,” he continues, “in a way, the best answer is to forget about the tropes and stories, go into the show, sit yourself in front of Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from the Bibémus Quarry [1895-99], and ask: ‘What on Earth is this?’ It is absolutely fired by some kind of passion. There’s never been a more vivid and extraordinary view. But is it like any landscape you have ever seen?”

That strange intensity of Cezanne’s familiar-yet-alien pictures – the sense, in many of them, that they’re about to unravel, tip over, fall apart – is why, for so long, he has been considered modernism’s Moses. As it happens, it’s also, I suspect, the secret ingredient of his greatness.

Cezanne opens at Tate Modern, London SE1 (tate.org.uk), on Wednesday