Agent of change

“I won’t offer you my hand, Monsieur Manet. I haven’t washed for eight days.” With such calculated incivilities, Cézanne invented himself as Impressionism’s bit of rough – the uncouth provincial who disdained Paris and retreated as solitary genius to commune with the Montagne St Victoire in his native Aix-en-Provence. A legend was born and sustained; refined and made scholarly, it reached its apotheosis in Aix’s landmark exhibition Cézanne in Provence in 2006.

But the greatest artists have multiple, contradictory facets and inevitably that show demanded an answer. The impressive new Cézanne et Paris at the Musée du Luxembourg relates how Cézanne spent more than half his working life in the French capital, studied there – his clumsy, agonised copies of Rembrandt and Delacroix in the Louvre are illuminating – and made the difficult trip to and from the Midi at least 20 times. This Cézanne set out not to work alone but to change the course of modern art, trump his peers and “astonish Paris with an apple”.

He followed his childhood friend Emile Zola north in 1861, met Renoir and Pissarro, but stood apart from the Impressionists immediately. In “La Rue des Saules, Montmartre”, painted when he was 28, the houses on a semi-rural street already suggest geometric cubes, colour is muted, the composition dominated by a broad grey pavement and echoing grey clouds. A decade later, in “Les Toits de Paris”, Cézanne drew the view from his fifth-floor Montparnasse studio in three stark horizontal bands to give the impression of depth of space: a massive zinc roof close up; then an expanse of red roofs touched with white, beige and chestnut; finally a heavy low sky – a sombre interpretation of the 19th-century City of Light that has little in common with Monet’s or Pissarro’s glittery, bustling Parisian society on bridges and boulevards.

Privately owned and rarely seen, Cézanne’s quiet, unpeopled visions of Paris introduce a show of surprises and iconic pieces, where almost every work is a masterpiece, with provenances – the Havemeyers, the Russian Morozov, early French collectors Théodore Duret and Victor Chocquet – to match.

Most were originally bought from Ambroise Vollard, whose towering likeness dominates a range of portraits – Zola, Pissarro, an unusually colourful portrait of Chocquet melting into a tapestry of rugs, paintings and marquetry – that bears witness to Cézanne’s close relationship with the Parisian avant-garde.

Vollard posed 115 times for a portrait Cézanne never conceded as finished. Everything about its restless surface marks – the suit folding in on itself, tight lips, shadowy downcast eyes – make this a depiction of interiority and intellectual enquiry, suggesting the intensity of the encounter between dealer and artist, with subtle highlights – on the knuckles, on Vollard’s massive brow – emphasising concentration and tension.

No wonder Vollard was uneasy: he was commanded to “sit still as an apple”, a feat only really managed by the tireless, stolidly handsome brunette Hortense Fiquet, who eventually became Madame Cézanne (“my wife only cares for Switzerland and lemonade”) in middle age. Bored-looking and monumental, she was, like the apples of the still lifes and Mont St Victoire in the landscapes, the unchanging model with which Cézanne redefined portraiture. Among several great examples here is Boston’s “Madame Cézanne à la jupe rayée”, where Hortense is integrated like a landscape motif into the architecture of a domestic scene: painting a world unto itself. “It is the first and ultimate red armchair ever painted,” wrote Rainer Maria Rilke. “The interior of the picture vibrates, rises, falls back into itself, and does not have a single unmoving part.”

Behind Hortense is the blue-gold lozenge wallpaper that recurs in the 1880 “Self-portrait” with the prominent right eye: the decoration conflicts with the roundness of Cézanne’s bald head yet surrounds it like an angular halo, forming an organic/geometric opposition and underpinning a structure of contrasts – light and shadow, modelled and flat, vertical and diagonal – that add weight and rigour. In a dramatically installed gallery, the wallpaper is there too in a series of unstable, tilting still lifes – “Poteries, tasse et fruits sur nappe blanche”, “Le Plat de pommes” – which play with perspective, demanding that we look at objects at once from above and straight ahead, deforming reality to explore the nature of sensation.

Renoir by now admired in Cézanne “un peintre déjà sorti de l’impressionisme”. Cézanne found it notoriously hard to accept compliments, never got over the stumbling block of Manet – “Une moderne Olympia” is an unhappy caricature of a painting – but came closest to friendship with Pissarro. In 1872-73 the pair painted together at Auvers-sur-Oise, north of Paris, and from Pissarro Cézanne developed a taste for close views of buildings crossed by a lattice of branches, as in “La maison du pendu”, delicate and luminous despite the abrupt juxtaposition of house and rock, and our complicated entry into the depth of the landscape through a steep, uncertain path.

Cézanne showed this at the first Impressionist exhibition and followed it with the radical “Quartier Four, Auvers-sur-Oise”: the houses, seen over an ochre wall, are rendered in dense solid brushstrokes and framed by lighter, impressionist trees in a composition with no single focal point and a flattened picture plane.

This was the breakdown of landscape into basic elements of form and colour with which Cézanne set out, in experiments conducted in isolation in Aix through the 1880s, to turn Impressionism into “something solid and lasting like the art in the museums”. In the 1890s he returned from time to time to Paris, favouring the Marne valley and motifs around Fontainebleau, delineated in a cool palette of blues, greens and purples in contrast to the warmer colours of his Provençal paintings.

Two outstanding such late landscapes are here: from St Petersburg the architectonic “Bords de la Marne”, with trees framing a riverside villa whose reflection is like a frozen mirror, rather than Impressionism’s shimmering effects, and “Rochers à Fontainebleau”, a cavernous, twisting pattern of sharp-edged rocks from which rise tilting tree trunks carrying a vaporous, spotted foliage – a painting that Meyer Shapiro called “the vision of a hermit in despair”.

But this show is the opposite of despairing: it celebrates the journey between tradition and modernity, solitude and camaraderie, Paris and Aix, by which Cézanne knew he was transforming art history. He died in Aix in 1906; his 1907 Paris retrospective inestimably shaped cubism, the movement that anointed Paris as world art capital for the next half-century. “Someone else will accomplish what I have not been able to do”, Cézanne had prophesised. “I am probably only the primitive of a new art.”

‘Cézanne et Paris’, Musée du Luxembourg, Paris, to February 26 2012

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