Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Cezanne: A Life

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Cezanne: A Life

Article excerpt

Cezanne: A Life.By Alex Danchev.Profile, 512pp, Pounds 30.00.ISBN 9781846681653.Published 18 October 2012

For most of the past century, Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) has been revered as one of the great modern artists, the painter whose landscapes, nudes and portraits galvanised a generation including Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and most of those we associate with the modern tradition. Alex Danchev's biography, written in a light, lively style, begins with the Cezanne retrospective in 1907 at the Salon d'Automne, the moment when this influence began to blossom.

It was here that two of his three large Grandes baigneuses were shown, works that were to sear themselves on the imagination of the avant-garde. However, interest in Cezanne had begun to stir much earlier, spurred on more by rumour and legend than by actual knowledge of his work, which remained largely inaccessible until the series of exhibitions at Ambroise Vollard's gallery in the 1890s. Contemporary criticism shows how perplexing and obdurate Cezanne's painting seemed, even to admirers, with its odd distortions of perspective and lack of traditional skills. Cezanne's own statements about his art only added confusion. While insisting on the primacy of his sensations as the basis of his painting and the need to see nature afresh, his nudes, by contrast, were replete with references to the grand tradition and executed without models.

As Danchev realises, if today Cezanne is recognised as a modern master, this has much to do with the way we see his work through the prism of what later Modernist artists and writers made of it. For Cezanne has not only been one of the most fertile sources for modern art, but has inspired some of the richest and most innovative art historical writing. Although much of this literature describes Cezanne's art in purely formalist terms as an artist solely devoted to finding a new style of painting, his work has also encouraged diverse kinds of interpretation, from phenomenology to psychoanalysis. While Danchev draws on this tradition, his book reflects many of the critical tensions of the scholarship. Prefaced by a quotation from Paul Valery - "The point is to give value to the man, just as he is, whatever he may be" - this biography attempts to recover the personality behind the art.

However, Danchev makes little attempt to distinguish between the culture in which Cezanne worked and the legacy of the later reflections his work provoked. …

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