I was so disappointed recently by a Cezanne exhibition (at Tate Modern), that I wrote about the frames rather than the paintings. How, then, to explain the excitement I felt this time, over just four of his paintings on one wall?
It took me a while to get my eye in, it’s true.
The new show at the National Gallery, entitled After Impressionism, includes almost a hundred paintings and sculptures by artists as fabulous as Van Gogh, Gauguin, Rodin, Klimt and Picasso.
Yet, it was Cezanne who would wow me, and it wasn’t his bathers either, though these were present in the first room – at the risk of sounding disloyal, I have never ‘got’ his bathers.
Instead, it was a group of paintings that I hardly noticed at first. They were hanging opposite Van Gogh and around the corner from Gauguin, and when the curator arrived, I was quickly caught up in a description of everything else.
Whisked away from Paris to Barcelona and Berlin, I forgot Cezanne for a while, but by the time a second curator’s sheer volume had driven me into the arms of the Cubists and some very strange sculptures by Matisse, I was ready to leave.
It was not possible from the room I’d reached, however. Behind a screen I could hear workmen hammering away. I dashed past the loud curator and returned to Cezanne’s room, and only now did I realise what I’d missed: a portrait of his wife wearing a red dress, a still life with fruit, a view of the mountain he was obsessed with and, finally, a portrait of a man.
But this was no ordinary man. It was Ambroise Vollard, the art dealer whose presence in this room rhymed with the pictures in the last room. Vollard was probably more responsible than any other person for the fame that unites Cezanne and Picasso.
And on the adjacent wall was a picture I’d never seen before, by Maurice Denis.
The people in this picture are standing in Vollard’s shop. They are also, in their own judgement, standing in the future. Sombrely clad, they huddle around another radiantly colourful still life by Cezanne, which Denis has rendered with assiduous care.
The style of the surrounding painting is not remotely Cezanne-like. With its imitation of other styles, one thinks of the multifarious paintings in the Tribuna so lovingly rendered by Johan Zoffany.
But while the old artist got nonentities to sit for his picture (and charged them good money for the privilege), the subjects here were avant-garde artists who called themselves ‘Les Nabis’ or The Prophets.
Behind the easel we can just make out a painting by their patron saint, Paul Gauguin, who would probably have been present in person had he not absconded to French Polynesia.
I would have been there too, had I not absconded to the 21st century, for the men are paying homage to Cezanne.
As soon as I glimpsed the wall again, I found myself doing the same. I started scrutinising the pictures so closely that the female guard got up from her seat by the door and came over to scrutinise me. She was wasting valuable time; I am no oil painting.
After giving me the once over and satisfied that I was not about to attack the pictures with soup, she returned to her chair. I carried on peering, drawn ever deeper into the beauty of Cezanne’s use of colour.
The colours are so subtle in all four of these pictures, but especially the first three, that you want to keep looking. There is that passage in Proust about the man who loses himself in a yellow used by Vermeer in his view of Delft. In the end, he suffers some kind of heart attack and dies near the painting.
This could be a kind of projected wish-fulfilment on Proust’s part, as when you are in the presence of this level of beauty you don’t want to exchange it for the banality of the everyday. I run the danger of over-hyping the whole experience, but at that precise moment, this was the most beautiful wall in the world.