PRINT December 1995

Richard Cork


I’ve waited all my life for a proper CÉZANNE retrospective, and the Grand Palais show certainly doesn’t disappoint. The painter revealed at the exhibition is mercifully removed from our oppressive mythology of Cézanne as the Moses figure who laid down the law about the subsequent course of Modern art, for this retrospective is nourished by fruitful contradictions.

The myth of Cézanne is that the violence evident in the rebarbative paintings in the first room of the exhibition disappeared once he began his steady, patient exploration of the observed world in the 1870s. At the Grand Palais, a momentous change is discernible when he forsakes fantasy and concentrates, with unexpected tenderness, on the pink and blue rooftops of Auvers. The advent of thinner paint, more systematic brushmarks, and lighter color coincides with this shift, as does the search for a more coherent and unshakable pictorial order. The great excitement of the Paris show, though, lies in its disclosure of Cézanne’s lifelong struggle with his old demons. Rather than eradicate his youthful impulsiveness, he continued to experience the pressure of highly charged feeling.

Cézanne’s fervency ensures that his art is always powered by openly declared tensions that prevent him from slipping into cerebral formulae, smugness, or grandiloquence. The striving for an authentic monumentality is awesome enough but remains qualified by a nervous awareness of flux. He discovered a marvelously supple way of allowing an impassioned unease to quicken even his most authoritative paintings. Right at the end, in an imposing portrait of his gardener, Vallier, he was still prepared to let his anxiety darken the image while heaping it with successive reworkings of paint. And in the Philadelphia Grandes Baigneuses (The grand bathers), 1906, the alarming brusqueness of bodily distortions miraculously coexists with the equally resolute search, among the arching trees, for a measured and redemptive harmony.


My excitement over the Paris retrospective leaves me scant room to deal with the year’s worst news: THE DISASTROUS DECISION TO REMOVE THE “APERTO exhibition from the Venice Biennale. However maddening and chaotic it may have been on previous occasions, the “Aperto” had an unpredictable vitality and edge. If it is not reinstituted, the Biennale could easily lapse into a somnolent parade of nationalistic pomposity. By all means reshape the presentation of the “Aperto,” but bring it back forthwith!

Richard Cork is chief art critic of The Times of London.