The love of Paul Cézanne’s life was a mountain. Not his wife, or his son, or his friends, or his parents. The great impressionist master was besotted with a bloody mountain. Over and over again he painted Mont Sainte-Victoire in Provence, obsessively, repetitively, like a lustful stalker with a paintbrush. People, for Cézanne, always came second. But this mesmerising exhibition of his portraits shows that even when dealing with flesh instead of rock, his eye was unique and brilliant.
The early works are brutal, angry, aggressive; filled with black abysses and filthy whites. He painted with a palette knife, stabbing and smearing on the paint, creating little psychedelic whirlpools of colour.
The blacks give way to daubs of blues, greens and pinks as his art develops, until eventually his sitters become little landscapes of greenery and blue human seas. Cézanne’s drive to capture what was in front of him was obsessive, making his subjects sit for hours, repeatedly, especially his poor wife Hortense.
But there’s a purpose to it: Cézanne is a reducer, a decoder. The sitters are objects to be painted, grappled with and depicted like a landscape or still life, things to be reduced down to their component shapes and colours.
The most common criticism chucked at Cézanne’s portraits is that they fail to capture any humanity or depth of emotion. But if that’s what you’re looking for, you’re missing the point. You don’t criticise his paintings of a mountain because you can’t sense the rock’s feelings, and this is no different. There are three separate figures who are reduced to vast symmetrical pyramids. Hortense is just fields of white skin, a symphony of shapes and colours, no more or less important than the wallpaper. His sitters are objects, chunks of material that reflect light.
Almost all of these works are incredible, but some stand out: the mush of depressive browns in the depiction of the art dealer Ambroise Vollard, the flat abstraction of the woman with the cafetière, the fields of green in the late portrait of his gardener, the black misery of the old lady with a rosary. In all their complexity and abstractness you can see the slow birth of modern art, and it’s stunning.
It sounds cold and unfeeling, but Cézanne was searching for beauty and light. He probably didn’t make any friends in the process, but when you see the gorgeousness of everything around you here, you can’t help but think that it might have been worth it.