The Art Gallery of Hamilton owns no paintings or drawings by Paul Cézanne. That fact alone makes it an unlikely place to originate an important touring show of Cézanne’s work.
Yet it has done so, apparently through the dogged, persuasive powers of AGH curator Benedict Leca. The World Is An Apple: The Still Lifes of Paul Cézanne is a small, tightly focused exhibition that examines the painter’s austere yet sensuous practice of painting a limited set of objects again and again.
The AGH’s partner for the show, and the only other stop on its two-city tour, is the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, which has 67 Cézannes in its collection. But the Barnes generally can’t lend or even move any of its treasures from the wall groupings decreed for them by collector Albert Barnes in 1922, and protected by his will. Not a single item from the Barnes’ hoard appeared in The World Is An Apple when the show brought record crowds to the foundation over the summer.
The Barnes’ international prestige, however, gave Leca some leverage, and over a period of eight years, he used it to persuade major museums and private collectors to lend paintings for his show. It also helped that no one had yet done an exhibition that focused on what the painter had done throughout his career with only a few pieces of fruit on a table.
Cézanne’s still lifes were an affront to realist practice, as this show demonstrates the minute you enter the door. In one corner, a canvas by Philippe Rousseau offers a savoury image of sausages on a pewter plate, with the dramatic lighting, compositional balance and finished surface of a nineteenth-century salon painting. On the adjacent wall, Cézanne’s Sugar Bowl, Pears and Blue Cup renders these objects in thickly smeared daubs of colour, with a swirling gestural surface that animates even the nearly black background. Instead of the gastronomic illusionism of Rousseau, Cézanne offers a painting that records the process of painting.
The artist’s descendant Philippe Cézanne, muses in the exhibition catalogue about “a visual language of stillness,” yet nothing is really still in these pictures. Everything vibrates with a restless surface tension that prevents any orderly division of the canvas by pictorial interest. A scrap of wallpaper in one corner of the picture may display as much energy as the fruit in the middle of it.
The show postulates that this procedure implies an “animistic” world view, in which all things are alive and able to influence each other. As Cézanne said to one of many acquaintances who recorded his sometimes conflicting comments, “There are days when the universe appears to me as one single flow.”
A single gestural motion can carry right across his canvas, as in Still Life With Bread and Eggs, in which the brushwork on a pitcher on the far left begins a sloping downward movement that culminates in the drooping cloth on the right. Cézanne’s cloths often seem about to fall off his tables, just as the tables sometimes appear ready to tumble their contents onto the viewer. In Three Skulls, a row of craniums edges forward on a table that seems tipped at a steeper angle than they are. Cézanne often propped up his urns and apples with wooden shims, with disruptions in plane geometry that are among this show’s many presentiments of cubism.
Sometimes his composition includes items so truncated that you almost have to guess at their identity, such as the piece of chair back floating at the edge of Still Life With Fruit and Glass of Wine.
The joke is that this apparently careless style of composition was achieved with so much premeditation, at the start of a painting process that was itself glacially slow.
The show makes an effort to display the serial monotony of Cézanne’s procedure, while inviting you to see how each treatment of the same table and similar fruit is different. The painter is constantly teaching you how to look while refusing to direct the eye to anything in particular. Those who find his work uninviting have a point: These paintings don’t take you by the hand or tell a single clear story. They make the act of seeing a personal responsibility.
When you get to Three Skulls on an Oriental Rug, painted near the end of Cézanne’s life, the flavour of a studio end-game is unmistakable, as in Goya’s “black” paintings. There’s something like horror in the skulls’ distortion, which is not visible in the more orderly Three Skulls. The flowers on the rug seem to issue from the mouths of the dead, as if to visualize a complete ecology in one picture. The thick paint surface around the skulls is as rough as an elephant’s hide.
We live in an age of personality, and Leca’s catalogue essay gamely tries to build up a portrait of the artist from the still lifes. Cézanne was for a long time seen as an uncouth instinctual talent, and may have encouraged this idea with his fondness for the rustic ways of Provence, and with his typically Provençal style of piss-taking humour. He would entertain visitors from Paris with talk that confirmed their preconceptions and displayed “a subtle mockery of which the listener would have been the unwitting target,” as the writer Edmond Jaloux observed.
In Leca’s version, Cézanne used his still lifes to strengthen “his canny posture as a rough-hewn maverick.” Even his statements of melancholy are interpreted by the curator as “calculated embellishments” to his skull paintings. The painter emerges as a Warhol-like manipulator of his own media image.
These speculations vaporize when you stand in front of Three Skulls on an Oriental Rug, which stares down the riddle of existence on a patch of canvas that he worked over for years. As another of Cézanne’s friends observed, the man cared only about painting. That’s reason enough to care about this absorbing and enigmatic show.
The World Is An Apple: The Still Lifes of Paul Cézanne opens Nov. 1 and continues through Feb. 8, 2015.
Follow Robert Everett-Green on Twitter: