Good vibrations

‘Composition avec des lettres’ (1919) by Fernand Léger

No landscape anywhere is more associated with an artist than the few miles around Aix-en-Provence that take in Cézanne’s Mont St Victoire, Bibemus quarry, chestnut tree park the Jas de Bouffan and the Mediterranean at L’Estaque. In Cézanne’s day, “the vibrations felt from this good sun of Provence ... the limitless things in nature ... these ineffable contours that leave us with so many profound impressions” were a world away from the Paris of his contemporaries, who considered him a clumsy recluse. Now Aix, a handsomely preserved 17th-century town of broad avenues lined with plane trees and bourgeois mansions, is just three hours from Paris by TGV and its Musée Granet – following restoration begun in 1990 and several bequests and major exhibitions – has become a site of cultural pilgrimage.

The newest, most eccentric and provocative gift, deposited here last year, is on show this summer in the The Planque Collection: The Example of Cézanne: selections from the 300 works assembled by Swiss maverick Jean Planque, who died in a car crash in 1998. Although international in scope – it includes a tumultuous scarlet Van Gogh, which Planque discovered hanging in the barely lit bathroom of a dowdy Basel flat; subtle abstract gouaches by Paul Klee; and works heralding the contemporary scene, such as a 1960 black sand and oil canvas by Antoni Tàpies – the collection has ended up here because Planque’s overriding interest was the legacy in France of the master of Aix.

A fragile, intense yet discreet personality, Planque began his career as a salesman for cattle supplies but from his youth was obsessed with Cézanne. In 1945 he invented a revolutionary concentrate to feed pigs and retired on the proceeds to a cottage at the foot of Mont St Victoire to learn to paint like his idol. He failed, and after a decade changed tack: joining Ernst Beyeler’s new Basel gallery, he acquired “the pictures he aspired to paint”, particularly works echoing Cézanne’s solidity of pictorial language, combined with flamboyant materiality.

The result is not only an exemplary individual and coherent collection but one which, in its strengths and weaknesses, marvellously and poignantly embodies the power, then the collapse, of French painting between 1900 and 1970.

Cézanne’s work was mostly beyond Planque’s means, though he bought in 1947 the airy late watercolours – “Environs d’Aix”, “La Montagne St Victoire vue des Lauves” – that open this show and never look better than when seen in the light of Aix itself. Long into the 20th century they were undervalued: “Surtout n’achetez pas ça, il n’y a rien dessus” (“Do not buy it, there is nothing there”), a connoisseur told Planque as he leafed through folios containing these sheets. But it was precisely the rien – the transparency, sense of weightlessness and even distance, as the motifs are skimmed with terrific economy in semi-abstract marks – that attracted Planque.

He was a collector who thought for himself and demanded emotional resonance from each work. He favoured late Bonnard, for instance, for the dissolution of form – the sunflower-yellow “L’Escalier du Cannet” (1946), with the tiny figure of a boy with a dog, reminded Planque of the “paradis terrestre” of his own rural childhood. He was as decisive for early Braque, notably the darting letters and shapes of the cream-grey oval “Souvenir du Havre” (1912), which he reckoned more lively than the serene perfection of the artist’s mature period.

‘Finlandaise’ (1907) by Sonia Delaunay

Cubism’s debt to Cézanne’s cylinders, spheres and cones made the first years of the movement an obvious attraction but even here Planque sought the eclectic: a rare abstracted view of “L’Estaque” from Raoul Dufy’s brief Cézanne period in 1908; the lyrical geometric constructions of Roger de la Fresnaye’s double-sided “Le Port de Meulan” (1911-12); the sober collage “Guitare” (1917) by sculptor Henri Laurens. A special place was accorded to Fernand Léger’s graphically precise, mechanistic yet subtle “La Rose et le compas” (1924): its meditation on the tension between natural grace and ordered beauty expressed Planque’s ideal of painting.

Then, in the early 1960s, two meetings shaped Planque’s future: with Dubuffet – monumental cartoonish works such as the three-metre “Continuum de ville” and “Légende de la rue” dominate the Granet’s upstairs galleries – and with 80-year-old Picasso, whose appropriation of graffiti styles as shown here vibrantly outstrips the work of the younger artist.

Desperate, like many Europeans, to believe in the continuing potency of postwar French art, Planque amassed a horde of abstract canvases from the 1950s – Roger Bissière, Nicholas de Staël, Raoul Ubac – which attempt to uphold the taut harmonising values of Cézanne and Léger but today look weary, overburdened by history, lacklustre compared with American compositions of the time.

Quickly a trusted confidant, Planque had first pick of the works of both artists through the 1960s. Dubuffet shown at this stretch is repetitive and formulaic but the late Picassos are the jewels in Planque’s crown, closing the circle between Cézanne and modernity that the collector spent a lifetime exploring. The lipstick-pink “Buste de femme endormie” (1970) turns Jacqueline Picasso’s strong features, cupped breasts and enormous hands inside out into a post-cubist parody of a sleeping nude – one exhausted, her expression suggests, by devotion to her elderly, demanding husband. The harsh, dark, unusual landscape “Marine” (1967) was identified at once by Planque as “the river we’ll all have to cross”; although Picasso snapped back “Don’t ever talk of that, Planque”, he sold him the painting.

Soon afterwards Planque’s wife Suzanne died and he acquired the ghoulish but unusually – for Picasso – tender grisaille portrait of a skull-like couple “Homme et femme. Tête” (1969) as a commemoration. It hangs here alongside the piece he called the “nail” of his collection, “Femme au chat assise dans un fauteuil” (1964): a black-green portrait of Jacqueline, her body thinned almost to vanishing point, one giant hand gripping a kitten whose liveliness seems a reproach to the deathly menace of her eyes and stern, flattened features. Planque was so affected by this sombre work that he sometimes turned it to the wall in fear. On the morning of Picasso’s death, he claimed, the canvas detached itself from its nail and slipped to the floor, as if it had a life of its own.

Like many good private collections, this one is animated by Planque’s near-religious belief in the power of pictures. The 17th-century chapel adjacent to the Granet that is being restored as a permanent home for his entire collection will be wonderfully fitting and, when it opens in 2013, a highlight of the Aix-Marseilles region’s year as European cultural capital.

‘Collection Planque, L’Exemple de Cézanne’, Musée Granet, Aix-en-Provence, to November 6

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.