Review: Cézanne and the Modern at the Ashmolean

Art Art & Lit

Paul Cézanne was a notorious grump; the closest he came to light-hearted fun was proffering one of his watercolours in lieu of toilet paper to his friend Renoir, in what one assumes was one of their longer plein air painting sessions. However, from this stems a proclitvity for intense contemplation. He rejected the idea of the Impressionists, with whom he is frequently lumped, believing that colour alone defined form. Instead, believing that this caused the surface of the painting to be flat, he preferred using volume to define form. In place of the hurried brushstrokes of Monet or the dappled light of Renoir, Cézanne created an immediate impression through intense observation of a location, constructing his paintings using small, parallel brushstrokes. Aside from when they are of his son, Paul jr., whose spherical head and Shrek ears make Wayne Rooney look like an evolutionary step in the right direction, Cézanne’s paintings are masterful in their calm, serene beauty. In his study of Mont Sainte-Victoire (Room 2), he employed the colour theory advanced by his Impressionist contemporaries to masterful effect. Here, Cézanne draws the viewer’s eye into the middle-ground using warm cream tones, anchoring this with the cool, blue sky. A painting of perfect balance, it progresses in thirds from bottom to top. But it is Cézanne’s watercolours that are the highlight. Whereas Cézanne’s the meticulous, near-scientific construction of Cézanne’s paintings can cause the oils, at times, to disintegrate into solid blocks of colour, the sheer, virtuosic restraint of his watercolours elevates them above even the effervescence of his contemporary, Degas (Room 2). In these, the impression of form is not conveyed by the colour itself but rather by its absence – a development of a 17th-century ink and wash technique. In his Still Life of Three Pairs, for instance, the majority of the painting consists of empty space with the white highlights of the blank paper defining the form of the fruit. Here, he frames the pears with the gentlest suggestion of a patterned tablecloth made using hurried strokes of dark blue, perfectly balancing the fruit with the vacuum surrounding it. Still Life with Carafe, Bottle and Fruit (Room 1) is composed with similar mastery – the painting’s strong verticals (the carafe and the bottle) are balanced by two, simple horizontal lines placed at the one-third and two-thirds marks on the page.

Despite the title of the exhibition, its focus is not actually Cézanne, but the businessman and collector, Henry Pearlman. The magnate himself had great personal artistic connections – the exhibition opens with an excellent portrait by Oskar Kokoschka of the benefactor smiling beatifically as though surveying his personal collection. However, it is, unfortunately, in its emphasis on Pearlman’s own collection that the exhibition falls down. The last room of the exhibition comprises the works of early 20th-century artists, many of whom lived and worked in the artistic commune of Montparnasse. Although the town itself – an artistic melting-pot seething with creativity in which paintings now worth millions were exchanged to settle bar tabs – is fascinating, this room does not do it for me. To me, the paintings of Soutine and Mogdliani (amongst others) are too thick and muddy, obscuring the form depicted in their gloom. However, it is this aesthetic, thick and foggy, that drove Pearlman to collect – he preferred Soutine to Cézanne – meaning that one cannot simply cast it off as an afterthought. Nonetheless, despite the funereal gloom of this final room, the ruminative poise and exquisite balance of the Cézannes makes the exhibition one that simply cannot be missed.