Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Fruit and Glass of Wine (1877–79), oil on canvas, 26.7 x 32.7 cm. Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1950-134-32, The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection. Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art
For Paul Cézanne, the still-life painting was anything but. “He had a special relationship with objects,” says Benedict Leca, Director of Curatorial Affairs at the Art Gallery of Hamilton. “They seemed to him to be alive, interactive in their engagement with other things and people.”
Indeed, Cézanne (1839–1906) even went so far as to talk about a sugar pot as having a soul. But although that “animist outlook” may strike some people as odd, it influenced Cézanne’s revolutionary approach to the still life.
Canadian audiences now have an opportunity to experience some of the French artist’s groundbreaking paintings in The World is An Apple: The Still Lifes of Paul Cézanne. Currently on view at the Art Gallery of Hamilton (AGH), The World is An Apple is the brainchild of Leca, who has brought together a judicious selection of works from museums and private collections worldwide. It is also the first exhibition to treat Cézanne’s still lifes — the genre in which Leca suggests the painter was at his most experimental, despite being known more for landscapes and portraits.
Paul Cézanne, Vase of Flowers (1900/1903), oil on canvas, 101 x 81.9 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, 1958.10.2, Gift of Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington
As evidence of that experimentation, Leca points to Cézanne’s associative painting style, which he used to create poetic juxtapositions and allusions. “Imagine Cézanne is in his studio, sitting before his easel, and painting a bowl of apples on a table,” says Leca. “Out of the corner of his eye, he sees the corner of a mantelpiece behind the easel. During the act of painting, that might be incorporated into the composition as a kind of projection.”
But in addition to his unconventional mixing of forms and meanings, Cézanne also favoured unruly colours, skewed perspective, and a radically impastoed paint application. Instead of “concealing” his brushwork and striving for a smooth, silky surface — one of the tenets of successful academic painting — Cézanne was “spackling the paint on,” says Leca, referring to the artist’s “rough-hewn, sculptural strokes of buttery paint.”
Such innovations are on full display in The World is An Apple. Featuring nearly 20 masterpieces by Cézanne, it takes visitors through the arc of his career in a focused, chronological fashion, while also isolating thematic nodes, such as flowers, skulls, and the artist’s signature motif — the apple. Overall, the exhibition presents what Leca describes as, “outstanding paintings that will never come together again.” That includes Still Life with Fruit and Glass of Wine from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Vase of Flowers from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and Three Skulls on an Oriental Rug from the Kunstmuseum Solothurn in Switzerland, as well as works from the Musée d’Orsay, the Guggenheim New York, and other acclaimed European and American collections.
Paul Cézanne, Three Skulls on an Oriental Rug (1898–1905), oil on canvas, 54 x 63.5 cm. Kunstmuseum Solothurn, Dübi-Müller-Stiftung, 1980. Courtesy Kunstmuseum Solothurn Dübi-Müller-Stiftung
Leca acknowledges, however, that it may be difficult for contemporary audiences to envision that such masterful works once outraged many 19th-century viewers: “It took a very long time for Cézanne to be accepted critically. [. . .] From day one, all of the major artists recognized that he was a freakish talent, but the viewing public, the critical establishment — broadly speaking — and art writers either ignored or repudiated him.”
To help visitors better understand Cézanne’s radical impact and legacy, the exhibition opens with a selection of realist still lifes by predecessors such as Henri Rousseau and Théodule Ribot, and closes with three important paintings by Cézanne’s younger colleagues and progeny: Vincent van Gogh, Maurice Denis, and Georges Braque.
The World is An Apple comes to the AGH after a successful run during the summer of 2014 at the Barnes Foundation, where it broke attendance records. Visitors to the AGH’s presentation will also have a chance to see Painting Hamilton, a concurrent exhibition of contemporary work curated by Melissa Bennett. As Leca notes, “you have the ultimate painter’s painter in Cézanne, being paired with some of the very best painting being done in Hamilton today.”
Not to be missed, The World is An Apple: The Still Lifes of Paul Cézanne is on view at the Art Gallery of Hamilton until February 8, 2015.
Robyn Jeffrey is a writer and editor based in Wakefield, Quebec.
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