Abroad at Home: Into Cezanne’s World
Many who have never climbed the rocky outcroppings, pine-covered hillsides and meandering roads surrounding Aix-en-Provence may find the historic city and its spectacular terrain surprisingly familiar. Its environs were the site of an epic battle in 102 B.C., when Roman forces defeated Germanic tribes on the flanks of nearby Mont Sainte-Victoire. In the Middle Ages, Aix became a university town, and later the seat of the benevolent
But it is most celebrated today as the birthplace of
(1839-1906), whose paintings of this corner of southern France make it recognizable to any student of modern art. With travel again on the horizon, readers can get a taste of what awaits them in online resources that explore Cezanne’s Provençal world, his signature subjects there and the truly revolutionary character of his art.
Cezanne has long been recognized as a forefather of modernism, a passionate, renegade artist who fused the transient vision of the Impressionists with the ideals and monumentality of the Old Masters, thereby laying the groundwork for
and much of 20th-century painting. His deep attachment to his native Provence, and especially to its sculptural, sun-drenched landscape, was crucial to his radical new art.
Recent efforts to rediscover or restore Cezanne’s distinctive Provençal sites—including the Jas de Bouffan (his family’s estate in Aix), his varied vantage points for painting Mont Sainte-Victoire, the abandoned Bibémus Quarry and his final studio at Les Lauves—have rekindled critical and popular interest in this essential aspect of Cezanne’s art. As outlined on the city’s own “Cezanne en Provence” website, they usher us directly into his milieu.
Both more profound and sweeping in its range, “Cezanne in Provence,” available on YouTube, is an eloquent and hugely informative documentary that retraces the artist’s tumultuous life and career in Provence and, intermittently, in Paris. Cezanne’s bold aesthetic ambitions and efforts to succeed in the hidebound artistic world he encountered in the French capital, his friendship with the writer
and his enduring affection for his native soil are all explored in depth. Created in conjunction with the 2006 exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington that shared its name, the film underscores the breadth and brilliance of Cezanne’s pictorial intelligence in every sphere he inhabited. Provence assumes, however, the starring role befitting its seminal place in his art.
Renovations of the Jas de Bouffan are projected to be finished by 2023. After the death of their mother in 1897, the artist and his sisters were forced to sell it, and such treasures as the murals he had painted there in the 1860s were removed and sold. But much remains of the home Cezanne knew: the third-floor studio his father built him, with enormous windows that flooded it with light; exquisite plaster friezes that decorate the walls of several rooms; and the verdant, tree-lined allée and grounds familiar from his paintings. The Jas will ultimately include a Cezanne research and documentation center under the auspices of the Société Paul Cezanne. But even now, as captured in the brief “La Bastide du Jas de Bouffan” segment on YouTube, it offers a sense of its former splendor and of the exciting possibilities to come.
Shortly after his father, Louis-Auguste, acquired the Jas, Paul Cezanne transformed the house’s stately salon into a private working and exhibition space. Monumental figure compositions, large, rudimentary landscapes and sizable portraits were painted on its plaster walls. Louis-Auguste presided over the room in a portrait, now in the National Gallery in London, marked by its impetuous technique. Another bold likeness of him in the National Gallery of Art in Washington—also painted at the Jas, but on canvas—includes, in the background, a powerful early still-life painted with a palette-knife. Like the salon murals, the complex portrait signals the ambitions and struggles that marked the painter’s early years, as suggested in a beautiful segment on Cezanne from the “Great Art” series. Hosted by
this installment (season 3, episode 5), available on Dailymotion, describes how the portrait also resonates with the story of father and son. Along with all of his work, the Jas paintings can be studied in the indispensable online catalogue raisonné “The Paintings, Watercolors And Drawings of Paul Cezanne.”
From his family’s estate, Cezanne could see the majestic profile of Mont Sainte-Victoire, an imposing granite massif that loomed just east of the city. His multiple views of it, painted throughout his career, underscore the ineffable place of Provence in his art. In the Khan Academy’s perceptive short film “Cezanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire” scholars explain how, in a painting of the mountain from about 1902-04 (now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, George Elkins Trust), Cezanne transfigured the classical French landscape tradition with a new pictorial syntax that ordered the emphatic, tactile touches of color that bind together near and far across the canvas surface. In an excerpt on Youtube from his “Landscapes Through Time” series, the painter
explains all this by planting his easel before a distant view of Cezanne’s perennial subject to delineate the unshakable pictorial geometry that served as scaffolding for such paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire and would inspire the more abstract art of Cubist painters.
The artist sometimes pictured the mountain from the bluffs of Bibémus Quarry, seen on YouTube in a clip titled “Carrières de Bibémus” and an evocative subject in itself. With luminous, gouged limestone walls and massive, geometric cut stones now overgrown with wild flora, the abandoned quarry offered stable, structured motifs that captured, as Cezanne described, “a taste of the eternal.” The Bibémus paintings and other rock-filled subjects are discussed by the curator
in “Cezanne: The Rock and Quarry Paintings,” a virtual tour of his superb exhibition at the Princeton University Art Museum that closed prematurely last spring because of the Covid-19 lockdown.
Cezanne’s last years in Aix, as seen in the brief (and somewhat romanticized) “A Tour of Cezanne’s Studio,” available on YouTube, were spent working at Les Lauves, the atelier he built in 1901-02 at the edge of town. It would accommodate his late portraits, still-lifes and large “Bathers” canvases, whose monumental figures were critical to his abiding dialogue with the art of the past and would redefine the subject of the nude for 20th-century painters. Painstakingly restored and filled with objects familiar from his work (some of them original), the studio evokes today the art and aura of the revered painter who, in his final years, drew countless adherents to Aix, and whose legacy now ennobles the city.
—Ms. Lewis is an art historian and member of the Société Paul Cezanne.
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