Art Review: Cezanne Portraits, National Portrait Gallery ‘Modern Portraits by the Most Modern of Artists’

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So, I feel like a bit ‘cup half-empty’ about this review and I don’t mean to be for Cezanne Portraits really is worthy of its ‘once in a lifetime’ description – this is the first time since his death that over fifty portraits painted by the great man have been brought together in a single show, and that is a terrific achievement. But I also visited this show in the context of all the hoopla, plaudits, and five-star reviews that had been showered onto it, and, well, I came away feeling a little disappointed.

Is this a good show? Yes, of course it is. Is it a great show? Um, maybe. Possibly. I think so, yes. Is it a five-star worthy show? Is the FT right to call this ‘the UK’s greatest painting show of 2017’? Well, this is getting a bit steep.  

I guess a lot of this comes down to what exactly constitutes five-star worthiness and then, of course, we are well into the realm of subjectivity. Me, personally, of course I can appreciate Cezanne’s importance. Picasso and Matisse were fair when they both referred to him as. ‘the father of us all.’

And looking at these radically executed portraits, it’s easy to see how Cezanne revitalised portraiture, saving it from dying a death stifled by formality and orthodoxy. His brushstrokes full of expression, his sitters more ordinary than elite, and the compositions swamped in realism.

But, whisper it quietly, I can’t help feeling that those who followed Cezanne probably did it better, and I’m not sure that I learnt anything more about the great man and his technique that hasn’t been spoken about many times before.

That’s not to say that Cezanne’s technique isn’t impressive – the way he built form with colour was radical and it remains a wonderful sight now. His analytical approach to nature, the way he’d apply thick spreads of oil paint with his palette knife rather than delicate strokes from a thin brush… All of this came together to create bold, modern portraits. But is that the same as ‘great’ portraits?

Don’t get me wrong, I applaud Cezanne’s radicalism. Of course I do. What I am trying to say, rather unsuccessfully, I feel, is that the final results don’t always hit the mark for me.

An exception to this, and my personal highlight in this show, are the c. ten portraits of his wife, Hortense Fiquet. The two had a complicated relationship. They lived separately for pretty much the entire duration of their marriage and, indeed, Cezanne only married Hortense after he’d been rejected by another woman, even though he’d already had a child with her. And this complex blend of intimacy and awkwardness is superbly captured in his paintings of her.

I particularly adored Madame Cezanne in a Striped Dress, 1885-6. Here, Hortense is visibly upset, possibly even depressed. There is the air of discomfort with having Cezanne paint that distress, capturing it forever. At first, I thought it beautiful, but I’ve been wondering since whether this is a sign of emotional abuse, of being forced to sit for a portrait when the sitter is clearly unwell.

This painting haunts me, even days after I’ve seen it. The way Hortense has her head down, looking into the distance. Her pale pallor the same shade as the dirty cream walls around her, the fact that she seems to be backed into the corner of the room…. Clearly this is a radical departure in almost every way from portraits that have gone before but it is also unsettling, and I feel deliberately so.

But Cezanne’s paintings of his wife aside, I couldn’t get warmed up by the subject matter elsewhere. The representation of gardeners, men with pipes, boys in red waistcoats, girls with dolls… It was all interesting enough. The fact that Cezanne focused on ordinary people rather than the rich was refreshing and innovative. And, yes, the moody hues, sparse details and, at times, cubist-esque composition is fascinating, but I couldn’t get an emotional in to these images. I felt excluded. I couldn’t get any insight into the sitter, their emotional state or, well, anything really. For all that is gained, the emotional intimacy, for me, seems largely lost.

So, look, is this show worth a visit? Well, only you can decide that but, as a guide, I would argue that if you’re a fan of Cezanne then there is much here for you to enjoy. However, if you’re one of those who is ambivalent at best about his paintings, then I’d say there isn’t anything in this show that is likely to change your mind.

National Portrait Gallery, London, to February 11, 2018

Admission £18 (without donation). Concessions available.

Image credits:
1 Self Portrait with a Bowler Hat, Paul Cezanne, 1885-6. Private Collection
2 Madame Cezanne in a Red Dress, Paul Cezanne, 188-90. Art institute of Chicago. Wilson L. Mead Fund.
3 Madame Cezanne in a Striped Dress, Paul Cezanne, 1885-6. Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Henry P. McIlhenny Collection in memory of Frances P. McIlhenny.
4 Boy in a Red Waistcoat, Paul Cezanne, 1888-90, National gallery of Art, Washington DC; Collection of Mr and Mrs Paul Mellon, in Honour of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art.

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