PAll Cézanne, born in 1839, who painted quietly until his death in 1906, is a modern artist of incomparable modern artists, whom Claude Monet called “the greatest of us all”. The closest evidence of this is that many of his successors have felt the need to go on his patch – literally. When Picasso told his dealer Ambroise Vollard that he had just bought a “mountain of Cezanne,” Vollard thought he meant a canvas of Mont Saint-Victoire. Actually Picasso bought an estate on the southern slopes of France.
Abstract painter Sean Scully and his family also now “actually live near Mont Saint-Victoire in Aix-en-Provence”. For Scully, the mountain “stands as a silent guardian that we see every day. It is monumental yet delicate in the way it absorbs the light of time and season.”
The same can be said of Cézanne’s towering presence in the history of modern art – monumental, yet extremely fragile. Scully is a 21st-century artist who paints in the tradition of Cezanne who finds abstraction in nature, with long lines reminiscent of plowed fields.
But he’s not the only artist who still looks up to Cézanne, 80 of whose paintings go on display this week in a major exhibition at the Tate Modern. The catalog has been admired by many contemporary artists, from Turner winner Lubaina Himid to Belgian painter Luc Tuymans. Cézanne defined modern art long before anyone knew what it was, inspiring the likes of Picasso, Georges Braque, Matisse and Jasper Johns (on loan to the show).
Here are six reasons why Cézanne is so admired:
For 500 years, Western artists painted a world view that was far away, until Cézanne turned the tables and shoved it in your face. His paintings are composed of parallel planes of color, which may look like traditional perspective “views” from a distance, yet form flat arrangements up close. It was a bombshell in the heads of Picasso and Braque, who, from 1908, Cézanne experimented with space implosion to create Cubism. Cézanne’s planes get another mashing in Cubist painting that makes you realize that reality isn’t a picture, it’s a mess that we pretend to understand.
Cézanne changed art’s relationship to the physical world. Before he painted his apple, the artist tried to capture a general view of reality in which each object is part of a larger picture. But Cézanne, like a fetishist, dwells on personal things which he grasps with a mental fist. It transforms the ancient style of still life into something more atomic and brutal. Within a few years of his death, Marcel Duchamp invented the “readymade,” asserting that an artist did not have to paint or sculpt but could “choose” something the way Cézanne chose his pieces of fruit.
Picasso revolutionized art when he made face masks – but he got the idea from Cézanne whose bathers’ faces appear to be carved out of wood. Cézanne saw them as masks, perhaps because he was socially distant: his wife also appears encased in a porcelain Japanese mask in his portraits. His self-portraits also appear from the outside; He was a stranger to himself. This sense of alienation is perhaps his greatest modern imagination. It helped shape not only art but also 20th-century literature and philosophy with its sense of the isolated, vulnerable, unstable soul.
Cézanne was the godfather of modernism from the 1910s to the 1950s, but when he gave way to postmodernism, he seemed to become a more remote ancestor. Yet it is surprising how much his fragmented view of reality anticipated TV and the digital age of pixelated images, bytes of information, glossy screens. Digital artist Cory Arcangel and pop artist Richard Hamilton are among those applying a Cézanne-like vision to today’s media. But our entire fragmented infosphere is already in Cézanne’s 1902-6 painting of Mont Saint-Victoire in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and its bits of information are as dense and complex as our life in the electric sky.
Cézanne is an artist’s artist, in the same way that Einstein, who published his theory of special relativity in 1905 while Cézanne was still painting, is a physicist’s physicist: Cézanne, again painting Mont Saint-Victor, took art into the relativistic universe of uncertainty. And again, seeing it in a completely different way, because even something as solid as a mountain is impossible to know completely or ultimately. Monet, who surpassed him, imitated this in his Nymphéas.
Cezanne challenges writers to find words for his sheer quiddity. He went to school in Aix with the novelist Zola, who would portray the young, unsuccessful – and unstable – Cézanne in the masterpiece. When the real Cézanne finally achieved fame, he was written about as a god of modern art by Roger Fry, Robert Hughes, the poet Rilke, and more—all of which turned to the impossible, irresistible challenge of putting those apples into words. Art historian TJ Clarke says in his new book If These Apples Should Fall that, after many attempts, Cézanne “couldn’t write any more” – but he did just that in a book that shows how the great artist was still straining.