Cezanne in Oxford: glorious paintings from the collection of the man who sold fridges

Cezanne in Oxford: glorious paintings from the collection of the man who sold fridges

Cezanne, Forest Interior c1890
Cezanne, Forest Interior (Sous Bois), c 1890, watercolour and graphite (view full screen at Pearlman Collection here)

Last week we made a trip to Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum to see Cezanne and the Modern, an exhibition of matchless paintings and watercolours, mainly by Cézanne, but with works, too, by Van Gogh, Sisley, Gauguin, and Degas – all of them from the Pearlman collection, and on show for the first time ever in Europe.

Henry Pearlman was an American businessman from New York who, in 1919, founded the Eastern Cold Storage Company that soon became prominent in the marine refrigeration business.  The wealth accumulated from his business enabled Pearlman to become one of the great American collectors.  From 1945, with his wife Rose, he bought ‘with great discernment’, starting with Soutime and Modigliani before moving on to the artists who influenced them – especially Cezanne and the Impressionists.  He hung his collection in his homes as well as his New York office.


Henry Pearlman in his office at Eastern Cold Storage, New York

It’s the Cezannes that we came for, and they dominate this exhibition – twenty-four works, including sixteen watercolours  and six oil paintings.  Together they constitute one of the finest and best-preserved groups of his watercolours in the world, the majority of them Provençal landscapes.

Cezanne, House in Provence, 1890–94

Cezanne, House in Provence, 1890-94, watercolour and graphite (view full screen at Pearlman Collection here)

The highlight of the exhibition for me was the extraordinary group of Cezanne watercolours ranging from the early 1870s to the final days of his life. With his pencil Cezanne boldly and firmly sketched the angular forms of trees and their branches.  Then, taking up his brush he subtly suggested their foliage in strokes of muted blues, greens and greys.  Two of the best examples are ‘Forest Interior’ (which is, we are informed, in the tradition of what was a favourite subject of French artists in the mid-19th century: the sous-bois) and the one which I would like to have hanging on my own study wall, ‘Path, Trees, and Walls’.  It’s almost abstract in its rigorous composition and geometric planes, and – like most of these watercolours – with areas of paper left blank to reinforce the effect.

Cezanne, Path, Trees, and Walls, c 1900

Cezanne, Path, Trees, and Walls, c 1900,  watercolour with traces of graphite (view full screen at Pearlman Collection here)

This is Alastair Sooke writing about these wonderful watercolours in the Telegraph:

Pearlman worshipped principally at the altar of Cézanne. The core of his collection was an enviable group of 16 watercolours by the French Post-Impressionist. […] These are subtle, glittering works of art, suffused with unexpectedly large areas of cream and off-white, where the paper is allowed to shine through from the background, contributing to a general atmosphere of freshness and brightness.

Using this technique, Cézanne could skilfully summon the lustrous skin of a pear, sunlight irradiating the façade of a house in Provence, or the bleached, luminous cranium of a skull. To accent the graphite design of his underdrawing, Cézanne applied tiny patches and strips of translucent colour, like silk scarves shimmering in a summery breeze. These pictures have the evanescent, sparkling beauty of a dragonfly swooping before your eyes.

Perhaps the most striking example of Cezanne’s radical approach is  ‘Undergrowth’ , a study of a tangle of trees and shrubs composed of rhythmical touches of watercolour made around 1900.  Is this abstraction or realism? Both, perhaps.  Does it even matter?  Not if we consider Cezanne’s own words:

Painting from nature is not a matter of copying the subject but of expressing one’s feelings.

Cezanne, Undergrowth, ca. 1900–04

Cezanne, Undergrowth, ca. 1900–04, watercolour and graphite (view full screen at Pearlman Collection here)

Cezanne, Forest Path, ca. 1904–06

Cezanne, Forest Path, c 1904–06 (view full screen at Pearlman Collection here)

‘Forest Path’ must have been one of the last watercolours that Cezanne worked on.  It’s another radical work that, through as network of pencil lines and brushstrokes, builds up an almost abstract pattern to produce an impression of great richness.

Cezanne, Route to Le Tholonet, 1900–1904

Cezanne, Route to Le Tholonet, 1900–1904, oil on canvas (view full screen at Pearlman Collection here)

The oil paintings here by Cezanne are stunning, too. ‘Route to Le Tholonet’ was first sketched in graphite, then not entirely re-worked (whether intentionally or not) leaving the foreground – in the words of the exhibition guide – ‘unfinished in any conventional sense’.

Le Tholonet was a hamlet with an imposing manor house at the foot of Mont Sainte-Victoire. From 1887, Cézanne had rented a small room there at Château Noir, where he stored his material and works in progress. Between 1887 and 1905, Cezanne painted many oils and watercolours around Château Noir, including the unfinished house that he saw through the trees, the cistern and the well, the pines, the rocks and the caves at the cliffs – and Mont Sainte-Victoire, which he painted almost obsessively.

Cezanne, Cistern in the Park of Chateau Noir, c 1900

Cezanne, Cistern in the Park of Chateau Noir, c 1900 (view full screen at Pearlman Collection here)

‘Cistern in the Park of Chateau Noir’ is ‘a serene and elegiac late landscape’.  Three poles over the cistern echo the strong diagonal outline of the rock in the centre of the painting and make a contrast with the upright forms of the tree trunks.

In 1902  Cezanne moved into the Lauves Studio where he painted the final series of oils and watercolours that is considered to be his supreme achievement.  This view of Mont Sainte-Victoire is unusual in its vertical format.

Cezanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire, c 1902

Cezanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire, c 1902 (view full screen at Pearlman Collection here)

This exhibition is brilliantly concise, consisting of only three rooms. While the first focuses on Cezanne, the second room is entitled ‘Impressionism and Beyond’, with works by Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Courbet, Degas, Daumier and Van Gogh, alongside one two more by Cezanne himself. There were two paintings here that I really appreciated.

Alfred Sisley, The Seine at Verneuil, 1889

Alfred Sisley, River View, 1889  (view full screen at Pearlman Collection here)

The first was Sisley’s ‘River View’.  Like many of his Impressionist colleagues, Alfred Sisley painted villages on the outskirts of Paris, both along the banks of the Seine river to the west and surrounding the Forest of Fontainebleau to the south. This painting used to be titled ‘The Seine at Verneuil’, but there is no record of Sisley ever painting there. The consensus now is that it was painted on the Seine or Loing River near Moret, and the original title was lost. It is, however, indubitably a ‘river view’ – and a highly evocative one.  The landscape shimmers in heat haze, and the leaves of the poplars seem to shiver in a light breeze. The blue summer sky has been richly worked by Sisley in swirls of oil paint reminiscent of Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’. Curiously, perhaps, the painting reminded me of a stretch of the river Mersey near Didsbury, just south of Manchester.

Van Gogh, Tarascon Stage Coach, 1888

Van Gogh, Tarascon Stage Coach, 1888  (view full screen at Pearlman Collection here)

The other striking painting in the second room was, in fact, by Van Gogh.  ‘The Tarascon Stagecoach’ was painted in one sitting in the courtyard of an inn in Arles, and is as vibrant and vivid in colouring as any of his paintings. Pearlman bought the painting – which Van Gogh experts knew existed but had been unable to trace – from a dealer in Argentina.  Van Gogh had mentioned the work in his letters, in one instance citing finding inspiration in a novel by Alphonse Daudet, published in 1872, in which a stage coach laments its glorious past, before the advent of the railway. 

The third room of the exhibition is entitled ‘Figurative Modernism in Paris’, and I have to admit I found little here to excite me after the foregoing jewels. The room is dominated by the densely painted canvases of Chaim Soutine which fairly shriek at you.  In the Financial Times, Jackie Wullschlager made this interesting observation about why Pearlman might have been drawn to these overwrought canvases:

Pearlman was a positive, energetic American entrepreneur who had never visited Europe; Soutine was a neurotic, alienated émigré who died in 1943 on the run in Nazi-occupied France. But collector and artist had common roots: they were born, two years apart, to poor Russian Jewish parents, and America made both their fortunes – Pearlman founded the Eastern Cold Storage Insulation Corporation in 1919, Soutine was starving and unknown when Philadelphia millionaire Albert Barnes became his patron in 1922.

In his review for the Telegraph Alastair Sooke commented somewhat critically on Pearlman’s significance as a collector :

The catalogue reprints Pearlman’s short memoir Reminiscences of a Collector. Down-to-earth and gossipy about the art trade, it is enjoyable but also striking for its lack of impassioned engagement. He doesn’t attempt to explain why he considered himself a “worshipper of Cézanne”, for instance. Instead, he prefers to talk about the cut and thrust of negotiating with wily dealers. I guess he was a businessman, after all.

As a result, Cézanne and the Modern offers a reminder of the dispiriting way in which the market can diminish artworks by turning them into trophies for the very wealthy. Like Pearlman, I’m happy to worship Cézanne, but I don’t see why we have to bow down before rich collectors as well.

I absolutely agree with Sooke’s observations: too many great works of art are bought up by wealthy collectors and then disappear from public view (in some cases in these times of austerity, cash-strapped public institutions are forced to sell great works in order to survive.  In the case of Pearlman, though, it must be said that since the mid-1970s, the Pearlman Collection has been on permanent loan to Princeton University, where students and gallery visitors have been able to study the works. The Pearlman Collection website also offers a worldwide internet audience the opportunity to study the watercolours, drawings and oil paintings in remarkable detail.

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The meaning of trees: the way we see the world

The meaning of trees: the way we see the world

Is the rowan tree still there in the garden of the house where I grew up? The thought occurred to me as I listened to the second of five talks by Fiona Stafford on The Meaning of Trees, broadcast last week in BBC Radio 3’s Essay strand (and available as a podcast download). Stafford had begun by explaining the Rowan’s popularity as a tree for suburban gardens – it’s easy to grow, is good on all kinds of soil, is low maintenance, and doesn’t grow too large.


For gardeners the tree has several benefits.  It’s a tree for all seasons – a kaleidoscope of changing colours  throughout the year, from creamy spring blossom and pistachio summer green to autumn’s bright scarlet berries.  It’s popular with bird-lovers because it’s a favourite of blackbirds and thrushes.  The result is that rowans found in suburban streets and gardens all over Britain.

Yet this is a tree that first flourished in wild upland areas.  And, as Fiona Stafford suggested, it’s long experienced something of an identity crisis, bearing a confusion of names at various times.  ‘Rowan’ reflects the Viking influence in Scotland, since the word derives from the Old Norse reynir,meaning red. The tree’s popular name Mountain Ash is a double misnomer: although it had its origins in highland areas, the tree is now just as common in the south.  Moreover, it is not related to the Ash (the confusion arose because of the similarity between the pinnate leaves of the two species). Then there’s the Old English name of cwic-beám, which survives in the name quickbeam (where ‘quick’ = life). Fiona Stafford considered various explanations as to why, from Anglo-Saxon times, the tree should have acquired its association with life. Perhaps it derived from its use as charm for infertile land, or from the therapeutic value of the berries (they make an excellent gargle for sore throats, apparently), or maybe it was something to do with the quivering leaves.

So the rowan comes in many guises: white ash, mountain ash, quickbeam, whispering tree, witchwood. As Fiona Stafford explained, this shifting identity suits a tree that is at once safe and suburban and a tree sacred to antiquity, renowned for its protective powers. She spoke of how the rowan figures prominently in Irish, Scottish and Scandinavian traditions, its berries considered the food of the gods. It features in old Irish poems, and has many associations with magic and witches. Its old Celtic name is ‘fid na ndruad‘ which means wizard’s tree. It also crops up in poems by Seamus Heaney, such as ‘Song’:

A rowan like a lipsticked girl.
Between the by-road and the main road
Alder trees at a wet and dripping distance
Stand off among the rushes.

There are the mud-flowers of dialect
And the immortelles of perfect pitch
And that moment when the bird sings very close
To the music of what happens.

This is the second series on The Meaning of Trees presented by Fiona Stafford, Professor of Literature at Somerville College Oxford. Like the first, this one explored the symbolism, economic importance,  and cultural significance of five trees common in the UK. While the first series considered the yew, ash, oak, willow and sycamore, in the second Stafford discussed the rowan, pine, poplar, hawthorn and apple.

Klimt -pine-forest

Gustav Klimt, Pine Forest, 1901

Before the discussing rowan, now flourishing in suburban gardens, Fiona Stafford had begun her series with another domesticated species – one that has found a place in almost every room of the house – and in providing key ingredients of many household products. Stafford was talking about the pine.  She began:

The year is 1975.  The summer is scorching, and people are starting to strip.

She’s talking about the new wave in furniture:

In the kitchen we have pine tables, dressers, cupboards; in the bedroom pine headboards, wardrobes and drawers; in the bathroom there’s more pine for the cabinets, towel rails, shelves and brush-holders.

Everyone, Stafford exclaimed, is going pine mad.  How true!  This was the era of Habitat and local artisans retailing reclaimed and freshly-stripped pine (or, with effort, you could do it yourself).  We, too – a young couple setting up home in our first flat – were part of this pine revival that was, in Stafford’s words, ‘a reaction against the polythene, plastic and polyester space age’.  Instead of lino and Formica that mimicked wood, we wanted the real thing.

A native of Scotland, economically the pine is the world’s most important tree.  There are not only the obvious uses in the furniture, building and paper industries, but also its medicinal properties in treating bronchitis and pneumonia for millennia and its resin, used to manufacture glues, gums, waxes, solvents and fragrances.  It’s the ultimate versatile tree, providing the base oil for emulsion paint, turpentine for cleaning brushes, pitch for waterproofing ships’ timbers – and licorice allsorts.

Drowned pine forest

The drowned pine and oak forest of Borth

The pine has been a British native tree for over 4000 years, with dark pine forests entering legends and fairytales.  Fiona Stafford told how, after the ferocious February storms, a prehistoric  drowned forest of pine and oak from between 4,500 and 6,000 years ago was revealed when thousands of tons of sand were stripped from beaches in Cardigan Bay.  At Borth the remains were exposed of a forest that once stretched for miles before climate change and rising sea levels buried it under layers of peat, sand and saltwater. The trees echo the local legend of a lost kingdom, Cantre’r Gwaelod, drowned beneath the waves.

Pines on the Mediterranean

Wind-tossed pines on the Mediterranean coast at Giens, near Hyeres

Stafford spoke of the pine’s time-old ‘tendency to help and to heal’, now revealed in a new sense as scientists discover that pine scents create a cooling, aerosol effect as they rise. So a pine forest can actually create cloud cover – a natural mirror that reflects sunlight back into the stratosphere and away from the overheated earth.  But there was one use of pine not mentioned by Fiona Stafford – one to which I am addicted.  The seeds of the tree – called pine nuts – when harvested make a wonderful addition to many dishes, as well as being an essential ingredient of pesto sauce.  Stafford did, however, mention the heady scent of pine trees which I particularly associate with the Mediterranean.

Mont Sainte-Victoire by Paul Cezanne, 1887

 Paul Cezanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire, 1887

Cezanne, The Great Pine, c.1896

Paul Cezanne, The Great Pine, c.1896

Something else overlooked by Stafford, but which I would have to mention in any discussion of pines, are Paul Cezanne’s paintings of pine trees which frame Mont Saint Victoire in his many paintings of that mountain.  Most powerful of all – and one of my absolute favourite paintings – is his portrait of The Great Pine.


A hawthorn in the Yorkshire Dales

“There is a Thorn—it looks so old,
In truth, you’d find it hard to say
How it could ever have been young,
It looks so old and grey.
Not higher than a two years’ child
It stands erect, this aged Thorn;
No leaves it has, no prickly points;
It is a mass of knotted joints,
A wretched thing forlorn.

This is the opening stanza of Wordsworth’s poem ‘The Thorn’, cited by Fiona Stafford as an example of the fearsome reputation of the hawthorn, regarded throughout history as so unlucky that its blossom should never be brought into the house or displayed. Indeed, I remember when I was a child, my mother, who hailed from rural Derbyshire, would be horrified if we came back from a walk with hawthorn in amongst a bunch of wild flowers). This fear probably derived from the erroneous belief that Christ’s crown of thorns was of hawthorn. From the belief flowed the idea that to bring any part of the tree into a house – but most importantly the flowers – would result in someone in the house dying. Attacking or cutting down a hawthorn tree was a bad idea for the same reason. As Stafford remarked in her talk, ‘Some terrifying force seems to lurk within this formidable tree – or rather in the minds of those who feel so threatened by its deeply feminine beauty’.

In spring, the hawthorn bursts into beautiful ‘May’ blossom. Every year, in Stafford’s words, ‘almost overnight the hawthorn turns white; huge heaps of flowers seemed to be dropped along the branches as if by some careless cook. For David Hockney, this is ‘action week’.  At his landmark exhibition in London a couple of years ago, a whole room was filled with ‘these huge, disturbing, custard-coated forms’ – a massive celebration of the magical, shape-changing hawthorn’.

Hockney, May Blossom on the Roman Road, 2009

Hockney, ‘May Blossom on the Roman Road’, 2009

Despite the hawthorn’s association with bad luck, the tree’s main association is with May, its blossom crowning May queens and adorning maypoles.  Its alternative name of May or May blossom reflects the fact that the flowering of the hawthorn is a sign that winter is over and spring is underway (although, given the British climate, May blossom might appear in April or as late as June).  Interestingly, the old saying ‘Ne’er cast a clout ’til May be out’ (a warning not to be precipitous in shedding any clouts or clothes) refers, not to the month of May, but to the understanding that summer has not arrived until the May blossom is out.

May blossom on Wenlock Edge, May 2007

May blossom on Wenlock Edge, May 2007

Coincidentally, Paul Evans, one of the finest observers of the natural world writing at present, has this week devoted his Country Diary in the Guardian to the hawthorn.  I think the piece merits being reproduced in its entirety:

The last May blooms like a bride on Windmill Hill. White in the evening light as the sky begins to clear from a cool, drizzly day, she stands as a lightning rod, still dazzling with energy from the recent storm. From lightning, according to myth, she originated. Her branches are filled with corymbs of five-petalled flowers, each with a ring of red, match-head stamens. Her earthily erotic musk draws flies for pollination and sends them into a trance. A sacred tree to European peoples, her wood was used in wedding torches in Greece, as protection against hauntings and evil spirits in Germany, and in magical healing for warts, toothache, rheumatoid arthritis and childbirth.

Crowns of mayflower were found on the dead of Palaeolithic cave-dwellers long before they were used as bridal wreaths in Greek and Roman weddings dedicated to Maia and the Virgin Mary. In Celtic culture, lone bushes like this one were places of fairy power and protected for fear of reprisals. There is something in this. I have long admired this particular tree: impenetrable and cloud-shaped, it flowers late and produces a big crop of scarlet haws. It is frequently full of birdsong and the hum of insects, and has a distinctive presence up on top of the hill as a kind of beacon. It would feel like sacrilege to interfere with it and I can well believe its beauty could turn to malevolence. Most May trees or hawthorns in the landscape have gone smudgy, their petals fading and dropping in the rain.

Paths and lanes all around are sprinkled with the white confetti of the great wedding of May, and now the month and its tree are nearly over. The next wave of rose relative flowers – bramble and dog rose – is about to break out of hedges and scrub. Until then, this tree says it all in dazzling simplicity: flowers and thorns, beauty and pain – the marriage of May.

The hawthorn, as Stafford rightly stated, has changed the entire face of Britain: it’s a palimpsest of old land practices. This hardy tree, when cut and laid, is in many ways responsible for our very idea of the British countryside because of its usefulness for hedging. When much of Britain was enclosed in the eighteenth century, the new fields were marked by hawthorn tree hedges, shaping the landscape into the familiar patchwork of fields. Fields bounded by hawthorn hedges form a deeply-ingrained mental image of the English landscape – which is why the uprooting of old hedgerows in modern farming practice can be such a psychological shock. More than that, the loss of hawthorn hedgerows has also had an impact on wildlife, contributing to the decline of many species of bird.  In his poem ‘The Thrush’s Nest’, John Clare observed the close affinity between hawthorn and thrush:

Within a thick and spreading hawthorn bush
That overhung a molehill large and round,
I heard from morn to morn a merry thrush
Sing hymns to sunrise, and I drank the sound
With joy; and often, an intruding guest,
I watched her secret toil from day to day –
How true she warped the moss to form a nest,
And modelled it within with wood and clay;
And by and by, like heath-bells gilt with dew,
There lay her shining eggs, as bright as flowers,
Ink-spotted over shells of greeny blue;
And there I witnessed, in the sunny hours,
A brood of nature’s minstrels chirp and fly,
Glad as the sunshine and the laughing sky.

A typical Poplar Tree lined road - south of France photo by Brian Jones httpbracken.pixyblog.com

A typical poplar-lined road in the south of France (photo by Brian Jones, http://bracken.pixyblog.com)

When, in the 1970s, we began travelling through France to campsites in the Dordogne or Cevennes, the element of the landscape that most impressed itself upon me was that of miles of poplars that lined the routes nationales as we drove south.  In her essay on the poplar, Fiona Stafford noted that many of those in northern France were planted all in one go, on the instruction of Napoleon, in order to shade troops as they marched towards the French border.  The fact that they rapidly grew tall in orderly rows meant that they were perfect for lining trunk roads, or for gentlemen – who, on the Grand Tour, had seen the ‘Lombardy Poplar’ lining roads and rivers in northern Italy and had decided to utilise them line avenues on their country estates.

Poplars by the Mersey near Sale

Poplars by the Mersey near Sale

Poplar, said Stafford, is not much good as wood these days  (it’s mainly used for matches), but is, surprisingly, the most modern of trees, being the first tree to have had its complete DNA sequenced. This breakthrough has allowed experiments in tree breeding to begin – with objectives such as combating carbon emissions, and developing bio-fuels and bio-degradable plastics.

For such a plain, column like tree there are, surprisingly, many literary references to poplars.  Among those mentioned by Fiona Stafford was ‘Binsey Poplars’, written by Gerard Manley-Hopkins as an early protest against tree-felling – an act of ‘spiritual vandalism’ – when the poplars in the water meadows at Binsey were cut down.  It was a landscape that Hopkins had known intimately while studying at Oxford, and the felling ‘symbolized the careless destruction of nature by modernity’:

 felled 1879

My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow & river & wind-wandering weed-winding bank.

O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew —
Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To touch, her being só slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all,
Where we, even where we mean
To mend her we end her,
When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
Strokes of havoc unselve
The sweet especial scene,
Rural scene, a rural scene,
Sweet especial rural scene.

Then there are the many artistic representations of poplars – ranging from Turner and Monet (the many paintings in all seasons of the poplars on the banks of the river Epte) and Van Gogh (who painted poplars many times in his life) to Paul Cezanne and Roger Fry.

Turner, A distant castle with poplar trees beside a river,1840

JMW Turner, A distant castle with poplar trees beside a river,1840

Monet Poplars on the River Epte,

Poplars on the Epte by Claude Monet, 1891

Claude Monet, Sunlight Effect under the Poplars, 1887

Claude Monet, Sunlight Effect under the Poplars,1887

Paul Cézanne, Poplars, 1890

Paul Cézanne, Poplars, 1890

Roger Fry,River with Poplars, 1912

Roger Fry,River with Poplars, 1912

Avenue of Poplars at Sunset by Vincent van Gogh, 1884

Avenue of Poplars at Sunset by Vincent van Gogh, 1884

Vincent van Gogh Two Poplars on a Road Through the Hills, 1889

Vincent van Gogh, Two Poplars on a road through the hills, 1889

Earlier I mentioned Cezanne’s obsession with painting the pines that framed the view of Mont St Victoire he saw every day when he climbed the hill above his home outside Aix-en-Provence.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think he ever painted the poplars cypress [see comment below!] which rise in the foreground of that view.  Maybe they weren’t there in the 1880s, though they were present when I photographed the scene a few years ago.

Poplars and Mont St Victoire

Poplars and Mont St Victoire

Whatever their economic or utilitarian value, the thing about trees for me is their daily presence in the world around us – ‘constant as the northern star’ as Joni Mitchell wrote in an entirely different context.  Constant and yet ever-changing: they may be the most important means by which we measure the seasons.  There is, too, something almost inexpressible about how we live out our lives amongst living things which – if they can escape the chainsaw – can survive for centuries or even millennia. They are truly, in the words of a poem by WS Merwin which coincidentally appeared in Saturday’s Guardian, the way we see the world:

‘Elegy for a Walnut Tree’ by WS Merwin

Old friend now there is no one alive
who remembers when you were young
it was high summer when I first saw you
in the blaze of day most of my life ago
with the dry grass whispering in your shade
and already you had lived through wars
and echoes of wars around your silence
through days of parting and seasons of absence
with the house emptying as the years went their way
until it was home to bats and swallows
and still when spring climbed toward summer
you opened once more the curled sleeping fingers
of newborn leaves as though nothing had happened
you and the seasons spoke the same language
and all these years I have looked through your limbs
to the river below and the roofs and the night
and you were the way I saw the world

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Tracing the Century: arbitrary and puzzling, but with gems

Tracing the Century: arbitrary and puzzling, but with gems
Henry Moore, Pink and Green Sleepers, 1941
Henry Moore, Pink and Green Sleepers, 1941

Just before it closed, I went along to see Tracing the Century: Drawing as a Catalyst for Change at Tate Liverpool, an exhibition which aims to highlight the fundamental role of drawing as a vehicle for change in modern and contemporary artFor the average art-lover it’s a deeply puzzling assembly, not only of sketches and drawings but also paintings, sculpture and film; moreover, the curators have jarringly juxtaposed radically different artists from different perspectives and periods.

So we find Cezanne sharing a wall with Klee and Richard Hamilton.  Henry Moore’s brilliant London blitz drawings are paired for some reason that escapes me with contemporary artist Matthew Monahan, while a Moore sculpture shares a space with works by Francis Bacon, Jacob Beuys and Andy Warhol.  The poster advertising the exhibition features anatomical drawings by William Orpen that were really designed as teaching aids for art students, while the show gets its name from Jasper Johns’ ‘Tracing’, part of a series in which Johns literally traced art works by Cezanne and others  leading one art critic to write that, ‘any art student ought to know that a tracing of a painting isn’t a response or an interpretation’.

The exhibition got a fairly savage review in the Independent:
There seems to be a vogue among curators at the various Tates for trying to force connections between palpably unconnected works or genres. Maybe it’s a leftover from the whole Dream/Future/Multistorey Car Park thing at the pre-new-hang Tate Modern.  Anyway, it’s time to stop.  Like a provincial restaurant, Tracing the Century‘s menu talks the talk but doesn’t dish up the goods. It starts from the unsurprising premise that drawing was a catalyst for change in the art of the past 100 years, which is certainly true, although it was also true for the century before that and pretty well every century since the caves at Lascaux. […] Irritatingly, Tracing the Century manages to be both arbitrary and over-organised at the same time – rambling vaguely from room to room while stopping to suggest implausible connections between unlike artists.
However, this is a big show, bringing together around a hundred artworks from the Tate collection, so you’d expect there to be some good stuff.  I quickly decided to just focus on the works that spoke to me – and there were many – and forget about trying to grapple with the curators’ argument.
Paul Cézanne, Montagne Sainte-Victoire,1905-6
Paul Cézanne, Montagne Sainte-Victoire, 1905-6

One of the first treasures I encountered was this watercolour sketch by Cezanne of Montagne Sainte-Victoire, his favourite subject from the late 1880s until his death. Cezanne returned, day after day to sketch it from different viewpoints and in changing light conditions and this watercolour was painted from the hillside above his studio at Les Lauves just outside Aix-en-Provence. The Tate caption explains its significance:

In his landscapes, he abandoned traditional fixed-point perspective in an attempt to capture the natural movement of the eye as it roams across the vista. The viewer is led across the surface of his image through passages of carefully constructed brush-marks and subtle tones.  Emile Bernard visited Cézanne in 1904 and noted his unique approach to sketching in watercolours: ‘His method was strange, entirely different from the usual practices and of an extreme complexity. He began with the shadows and with a touch, which he covered with a second more extensive touch, then with a third, until all these tints, forming a mesh, both coloured and modelled the object.’

Paul Gauguin, Tahitians, 1891
Paul Gauguin, Tahitians, 1891

Paul Gauguin’s Tahitians is hard to date exactly owing to its unfinished state, but most probably it was made about 1891 during Gauguin’s first stay in Tahiti. In its unfinished state, though, it reveals a great deal about Gauguin’s working methods.   He began his work in Tahiti by making a number of studies in order to come to terms with his new subject-matter. Here he is sketching out his ideas, beginning with a crayon and charcoal drawing on paper, and adding in detail on the left in oil.  On 11 March 1892 Gauguin wrote to Daniel de Monfreid: ‘I work more and more but so far only studies or rather documents … If they aren’t of use to me later they will be useful to others.’

Woman Seated in the Underground 1941
Henry Moore, Woman Seated in the Underground, 1941

I’m not going to complain about an exhibition that brings to your home town three of the drawings made by Henry Moore of Londoners sheltering from the blitz in 1941 in Belsize Park underground station.  The three drawings here – Pink and Green Sleepers (top), Woman Seated in the Underground (above) and Tube Shelter Perspective (below) – began as rough drawings that Moore made in the shelter that he developed once he reached home, using a range of techniques: wax crayon, watercolour wash, pencil, inks.

Tube Shelter Perspective 1941
Henry Moore, Tube Shelter Perspective, 1941

Moore uses a variety of techniques in this series: allowing wax crayon to dispel water-based paints or inks; scratching into paint and crayon with sharp objects; smudging materials; using thick impasto and thin washes; alternating fine wispy lines with heavy contours. The effect is more sculptural in texture than traditional drawing. The rough surfaces and scratchy lines bear a strong resemblance to Moore’s sculptures of reclining figures or natural forms such as weather-worn stone.  Which perhaps explains why, as soon as you enter the next room, you are confronted with his 1938 Recumbent Figure from 1938, dominating the room.

Henry Moore - Recumbent Figure 1938

Henry Moore was 42 and teaching at Chelsea Polytechnic when the Second World War began. At first, his life carried on as normal, though he was unable to work on his sculptures due to a scarcity of materials. One evening, he was delayed on his journey home from London and came upon the scenes that would provide him with these poignant images. When he arrived at his underground station, Belsize Park, he was transfixed by the sight of the sleeping figures of Londoners sheltering on the platform and along the underground passages.  He immediately made a connection with his own art:

I had never seen so many reclining figures and even the holes out of which the trains were coming seemed to me like the holes in my sculpture… people who were obvious strangers to one another were forming intimate groups.

Moore returned several times to make discrete sketches so as to avoid intrusion on the sleepers’ privacy. The sheltering forms seemed to evoke associations between the sleepers and forms in the landscape, unconsciously supporting the wartime propaganda message that the British people were an indomitable force which would prevail against all hostilities.

Warhol, Boy with thumb in his mouth, 1956
Andy Warhol, Boy with Thumb in his Mouth, 1956

Andy Warhol may be better known for his pop art screen prints of Marilyn Monroe and his soup cans, but early in his artistic career, in the early 1950s, he produced some exquisite drawings that revealed him to be a skilled and sensitive draughtsman.  Two of these drawings are on display here – Boy with Thumb in his Mouth and Resting Boy, from 1955-56 – which employ a superb economy of line, with all unnecessary detail removed.  Warhol’s work revealed a fascination with the male body throughout his career, a fascination first evident in his early line drawings of young men from the mid to late 1950s, many of which were included in his ‘Drawings for a Boy Book’ exhibition at the Bodley Gallery, New York in 1956. The style of these drawings show similarities to the work of Henri Matisse and Jean Cocteau, both of whom employed a similar reductive linear drawing technique, and whose work Warhol admired.  There’s a delicacy and tenderness in these drawings that sets them apart from the rest of his wiork.

Warhol, Resting Boy, 1955
Andy Warhol, Resting Boy, 1955

Alongside these two drawings hangs a later one  – a portrait of David Hockney completed in 1974.  There’s a connection here, of course: Hockney played an important role in the British Pop Art movement, and he, too, is a master of the art of line drawing. The Warhol portrait is a pencil line drawing in which the features and textures of Hockney’s hair and shirt have been reduced to abstract lines and shapes. But it is less satisfying than the 1950s drawings, almost certainly being completed by the process of projecting a photograph on to a large sheet of paper, where Warhol would then draw around the areas of the image he wished to define. When the projector was switched off, the drawing remained.

Andy Warhol, David Hockney, 1974
Andy Warhol, David Hockney, 1974

Tucked away in a small side room is David Hockney’s portrait of his mother –  Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, Mrs Laura Hockney, Bradford 1972 – drawn in pen in one session, without revisions.  It’s a gem.

 David Hockney, Portrait of the Artist's Mother, Mrs Laura Hockney, Bradford 1972
David Hockney, Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, Mrs Laura Hockney, Bradford 1972

In this line drawing, Hockney’s mother, sitting in a wing chair, is revealed as frail-looking with a lined face. Wearing a simple dress with short sleeves and a round neck, the figure sits with her hands neatly folded on her lap and her legs crossed. The chair is positioned squarely within the frame but the figure sits upright against the chair’s right-hand corner, which gives a three-quarter view of the sitter. The face is worked with more detail than the rest of the image. The drawing is inscribed ‘Bradford, Aug 2nd, 1972’.  Laura Hockney was then 72 years old, but as her obituary in The Guardian noted, she lived to be 99 years old, ‘deceptively frail-looking during most of the artist’s years of fame, she attended receptions in a wheelchair surrounded by gossip and laughs’. She was subject of many of Hockney’s drawings, paintings and photo-collages, and had encouraged her son in his artistic ambitions when he was a schoolboy.

 Lucian Freud, Narcissus, 1948
Lucian Freud, Narcissus, 1948

Here’s another remarkable drawing: Lucian Freud’s Narcissus, from 1948.  The subject is the boy in classical mythology who fell in love with his own reflection and died of love for himself.  I think it might be a self portrait of the artist obsessed by the details of his own face reflected in the glass below him.  The drawing deploys a variety of techniques:  the texture of the thick woollen sweater is minutely detailed in lines and cross-hatching.  His hair is drawn with quick, flowing pen lines, while the details of his face are marked by pen stipple. The edge of the mirror is close to the subject’s chin, creating a stark division of figure and reflection.  The Tate caption adds: ‘The reflection is cropped above the eyes which, had they been included, would have been looking upwards at the viewer. Instead, the subject is rendered a double object, enclosed in a circularised, interior world.’

Pablo Picasso, Dora Maar Seated, 1938
Pablo Picasso, Dora Maar Seated, 1938

Dora Maar was a a stunningly beautiful, passionate and acutely intelligent young woman, a painter, photographer and reporter, who became Picasso’s lover in 1935, and remained so through the war years. She was one of his most important models during that period and, perhaps as important, a great influence on his art and politics.

Picasso and Dora Maar, photographed by Man Ray, 1937
Picasso and Dora Maar, photographed by Man Ray, 1937

Shortly after their first meeting, in the winter of 1935-36, Dora photographed Picasso in her Paris studio. Dora’s photography and the experimental techniques she employed were a source of inspiration to Picasso. He began to take photographs of her that were the catalyst for a whole series of works. Using photographs of Dora as a starting point, Picasso painted several portraits of Maar.  This preparatory sketch, using ink, gouache and oil paint,shows Dora with her hands crossed elegantly in her lap.

Grayson Perry - Aspects of Myself
Grayson Perry – Aspects of Myself

Centre piece in another room is Grayson Perry’s ceramic vase Aspects of Myself which I suppose is present here because the surface of the vase is inscribed with writing and drawings that reflect key moments in his life or which address issues of identity, class, sexuality and gender that are central to Perry’s identity and sharply satirical view of society and the art world. Aspects of Myself is an autobiographical work showing the artist in the guise of his transvestite alter-ego ‘Claire’.  In an interview with The Art Newspaper in February 2012, the interviewer observed, ‘Another unusual aspect of your work is that it incorporates a lot of content, narrative scenes and often writing’.  Grayson Perry responded:

Oh, you’ve got to have content; I think it’s cowardly to avoid content. I judged a competition the other day and among the 700 works the number of wishy-washy semi-abstract paintings I saw was incredible. It was as though they wanted to make art, but didn’t want to say anything. I hate the aimless, apparently transcendent thing in sub-Rothkos: “Oh, this is all about spirituality.” Fuck off. Why isn’t it about your mother-in-law or poverty or war?

What is your content about?

Things that have interested me all my life: religion, kinky sex, class, taste, folk art – stuff like that.

Paul Nash, Three Rooms, 1937
Paul Nash, Three Rooms, 1937

There are a couple of Paul Nash works in the exhibition; one of them is Three Rooms from 1937, a  pencil, crayon and watercolour sketch on paper. The work reflects Nash’s renewed commitment to the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936. It shows three interrelated rooms invaded by the sky, a forest and the sea. The air of strangeness and the combination of disparate elements is typical of much Surrealist painting and writing, but its mysterious symbolism also recalls the work of William Blake.

See also


Cezanne’s studio at Les Lauves

A highlight of our short break in Provence was a visit to Cezanne’s studio at Les Lauves, a fifteen minute walk uphill from the centre of Aix-en-Provence. Cézanne bought the small country property on the hillside in November 1901.  At that time it was surrounded by agricultural land, olive and fig trees with clear views across to Montagne Sainte-Victoire. On the land at Les Lauves Cezanne had his studio built, its most striking feature being the large north-facing window that provided the best light for painting.

Today the two-storey studio is surrounded by dense shrubbery and tall trees, and other properties have encroached as suburban Aix has crept up the hill.

We were fortunate in visiting the studio out of season.  For nearly half an hour there were only four other visitors in addition to ourselves – and since the others spoke English, that was the language the guide gave her talk in (the only English guided tour is at 17:00 each day).  We had her full attention until a large and enthusiastic party of schoolchildren from Marseille arrived.

The studio is on the first floor. Living accommodation was created on the ground floor, but Cézanne ended up using this mainly to store his canvasses – up to 2,000 of them – and continued to live in an apartment in the city.  Each morning, our guide explained,  Cezanne would rise early and walk the mile up the hill to the studio.

He would work at the studio from about 6am to 10.30am, return to Aix for lunch, then go back to paint until 5.30pm, either in the studio or walk further up the hill to the summit for the clear views it offered of his motif, Mont Sainte Victoire.  Cézanne was photographed at this spot by Kerr-Xavier Roussel in January 1906 (below).

It was up the hill, in autumn 1906, that Cézanne got caught in a thunderstorm and was taken home unconscious in a laundry cart. He rose again early the following day to work on a portrait of Vallier, his gardener.  But his condition worsened and he died of pleurisy six days later during the night of 22-23 October. ‘I have sworn to die painting’, Cézanne had written only a few days earlier.

The studio remained empty for 15 years. It was bought in 1921 by a Marcel Provence, who lived there until his own death in 1951.  Anxious to rescue it from property developers, the art historian and Cézanne scholar John Rewald organised a committee of over 100 American benefactors who purchased the house, then gifted it to Aix University  Since 1969 it has been owned by the City of Aix.

Although the city suburbs have expanded to swallow up the area, the house still stands in acres of wild and overgrown gardens, which visitors are free to stroll around.

A ten minute walk to the summit of Les Lauves leads to the Terrain des Peintres, a small park that has preserved Cezanne’s favourite site for painting Montagne Sainte-Victoire.  Here is the view of the mountain that Cezanne painted so many times, framed by pines, and with ten ceramic panels displaying some of the paintings he worked on here.

Cezanne: Mont Sainte-Victoire (Philadelphia Museum of Art)
Mont Sainte-Victoire, watercolour, 1895 (national Gallery of Scotland)

Cezanne produced 44 oil paintings and 43 watercolours of  Montagne Sainte-Victoire, presenting the forms and rhythms of the landscape with short diagonal brushstrokes and patches of colour.  The mountain was the motif whose secret he strove to unlock.  He wrote to his first biographer, Joachim Gasquet:

The blue smell of the pines … must be married to the green smell of the plains which are refreshed every morning, with the smell of stones, the perfume of distant marble from Sainte-Victoire. I have not expressed it. It must be done. And by colours, not literature.

There is speculation that, like many other artists of his time, Cezanne was influenced by Japanese prints,  particularly the work of Hokusai, who was also obsessed by a mountain – Mount Fuji.  Why would these artists paint the same motif so many times over so many years?

On the Toshidama Gallery blog there is the suggestion that, as well as there being a spiritual dimension to their quest,  there was also a ‘relentless need to get below the surface of the motif, to strive to represent something greater than a pedestrian depiction’. At the age of 74, Hokusai wrote:

If I go on trying, I will surely understand them [images of nature], still better by the time I am eighty-six, so that by ninety I will have penetrated to their essential nature. At one hundred, I may well have a positively divine understanding of them, while at one hundred and thirty, forty, or more I will have reached the stage where every dot and every stroke I paint will be alive. May Heaven, that grants long life, give me the chance to prove that this is no lie.

Cezanne similarly commented:

I could paint for a hundred years, a thousand years without stopping and I would still feel as though I knew nothing.  … My age and health will never allow me to realize the dream of art I’ve been pursuing all my life.

My personal favourite of the Montagne Sainte-Victoire images is the Courtauld painting (above).  This is typical of many of the earlier depictions of the mountain in that its subject is framed by pine trees.  And it is one pine that dominates my favourite of all Cezanne’s paintings – The Great Pine (1892-6), not painted at Les Lauves but probably, given the red soil in the foreground, at another of Cezanne’s favourite spots, the Bibemus Quarries near the foot of  Montagne Sainte-Victoire.

In his survey of Cezanne’s work, Meyer Schapiro wrote:

A poetic conception of the tree as a giant individual, rising to the heavens above the heads of its smaller fellows, twisted in axis and shaken by great forces, but supreme in its height and vast spread. Its rise from the ground is dramatic in its stages: through a sturdy bent trunk, far stronger than any other we see; through a region of bare and dying branches, leafless against the sky; then the great arched crown of foliage spanning almost the entire sky. The landscapists of the Romantic school, Huet and Dupre, had painted similar heroic trees, but the stormy sky and tormented ground in their pictures are a more obvious external motivation of the agony of the tree. In Cézanne’s picture, the drama is in the tree itself, with its strained, conflicting forms, reacting to the wind. With a remarkable simplicity that often passes for naivete but is the wisdom of great art, he presents his vision of the tree in the clearest way, placing the tree in the center of the field directly before us. But he knows how to use the surrounding elements to support the drama. The ground slopes and the other trees are inclined away from the big trunk as if they have been parted by the giant’s upward movement. We see no branches beside those of the central tree; its torment and spread are a unique fact.

The picture is a beautiful harmony of blues and greens, in which the occasional warm touches in the branches and foliage pick up the strong ochre band of the road.

Simple and perfectly legible, it has also a great vitality and movement through the brush strokes. With few lines, they create by their changing directions a perpetual stirring of the space, great eddying currents, winds, and turbidities. Yet they resolve into a few large masses of color.

Cézanne’s feeling for the great tree goes back to his youth. In a letter to Zola in 1858, he wrote: ‘Do you remember the pine on the bank of the [river] Arc, with its hairy head projecting above the abyss at its foot?  This pine which protected our bodies with its foliage from the heat of the sun, oh ! may the gods preserve it from the woodman’s baleful axe !’

Cezanne’s Card Players

The Card Players, 1890–92 Paul Cézanne (MoMA)

In the case of art exhibitions, small can be beautiful.  After viewing the extensive Gauguin exhibition at Tate Modern (which was unmissable and revelatory) we headed back over the river to the Courtauld Gallery in Somerset House for an exhibition on a totally different scale:  Cezanne’s Card Players.

Paul Cézanne’s sequence of paintings of peasant card players have long been considered to be among his most iconic and powerful works. The Courtauld’s landmark exhibition is the first to bring together the majority of these remarkable paintings alongside a magnificent group of closely related portraits of Provençal peasants and rarely seen preparatory oil sketches, watercolours and drawings.  The Courtauld Gallery’s two masterpieces from this series, The Card Players and Man with a Pipe, are joined by exceptional loans from international collections, including versions of  The Card Players from Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, and related works from the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.

Cezanne worked repeatedly on this scene of peasants playing cards in the early 1890s. He enlisted local farm hands to serve as models, possibly men whom worked on his father’s property in Jas de Bouffan, on the outskirts of Aix. Certainly the man smoking the pipe has been identified as Père Alexandre, the gardener there. Cezanne may have drawn inspiration for his Provençal genre scene from a painting of the same theme by the Le Nain brothers that was in the museum in Aix.

There are five paintings in the series, three of which are on display at the Courtauld.  One is in a private collection and has not been exhibited in 50 years.  The exact chronology is disputed – for most of the last century it has been believed he painted them from the biggest downwards, honing and distilling along the way as he tried to make it more intense. But new x-ray research suggests he was doing it the other way round, more conventionally going from small to big. ‘He worked his way up trying to make something that was more heroic’, says the exhibition’s co-curator Barnaby Wright.

The conventional view up to now has been that the canvas owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art (top) was the first to be painted. It features four figures, three of which are seated, hunched over their game, with one figure standing, hovering over them in unresolved space (is he standing right next to the players, or leaning against the rear wall?). The use of colour is striking:  the powdery blue of the backdrop, the tawny gold of a rumpled curtain, the deep blue of a smock and a set of overalls, the latter offset by the fierce red of a scarf.

The largest and most complex of Cézanne’s Card Players is the version owned by the Barnes Foundation in Pennsylvania (above – not included in the current exhibition). In this version, the cards in the players’ hands are not so clearly visible, and there are cards and a pipe on the table.  And there is an additional figure – that of the little girl, between the central figure (who has no hat here) and the man on the right.

Compare this to the Metropolitan’s picture:  Cézanne has tightened the composition, reduced the size by half and left out one figure. He continued to pare away extraneous details in each successive rendition.

In the versions held by the Courtauld and the Musee d’Orsay (below), a bottle, with the light playing on it, forms the central axis of the composition. It separates the space into two symmetrical areas, accentuating the opposition of the players.

The Card Players, 1890–92 Paul Cézanne (Musee d

Tonality largely replaces colour and two figures are omitted, so that there remain just two figures, hunched over the table, each lost in contemplation of their cards. What these paintings lose in colour, they appear to gain in uncluttered architectural monumentality, and to gain further that sense of the timeless that Cézanne strove to achieve.

The Card Players, 1890–92 Paul Cézanne (Courtauld)

In The Guardian, Mark Brown wrote:

As well as being stunning to look at, the paintings ask bigger philosophical questions. It was highly unconventional to pose peasants in this way, normally they would have been posed in the field looking heroic or in an inn looking drunk and disorderly. In The Card Players series they are from drunk or rowdy. They are intense and unmoving, rooted in concentration. Cézanne was painting the human equivalent of the mountain – solid men who carried on the traditions of their forebears. ‘It is a search for stillness and almost sculptural monumentality’, said exhibition curator Barnaby Wright.

Wright said: “One thing that’s been extraordinary about bringing these loans together is that each one has come with a curator, as they always do, and each curator has said ‘this is one of our star pictures which we don’t loan that often.’ We feel very privileged to have them here.  We’ve made a really compelling case we think, it really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. As a room in London it’s hard to beat.”

Personally I found these, and the related paintings in the exhibition, moving for the deep humanity with which they portray their subjects. Though he draws on a rural genre painting tradition, Cézanne’s does not depict his card players as rowdy drinkers and gamblers in the way that peasants had been portrayed for centuries. Rather, they are stoical and completely absorbed in their card play. The English critic Roger Fry wrote in 1927:

It is hard to think of any design since those of the great Italian Primitives… which gives us so extraordinary a sense of monumental gravity and resistance – of something that has found its centre and can never be moved.

Although Cezanne, a banker’s son, was socially far-removed from the peasants he portrayed in the card player series,  he often spoke of his sympathy or affection for those who worked on the land – in his words ‘people who have grown old without breaking with old customs’.  This is indicative that sympathy for peasants among men of Cezanne’s social class did not imply attachment to progressive politics. Rather, it reflected respect for country-folk in an ordered and hierarchical society in which each had his or her role. As Nancy Ireson and Barnaby Wright state in the exhibition catalogue:

This painter was a landowner with a private income and the men he painted were his employees.  Though he depicted these sitters with the same care and consideration he brought to all his subjects, there is no indication that he had any kind of personal connection with them.

Nothing in Cezanne’s letters or recorded conversation suggest any concern with questions concerning the circumstances or character of the peasantry in his time.  The image he portrays is not Emile Zola’s vision of the hardships and brutality of peasant life in La Terre, published a few years before Cezanne began work on the series.  Nor are there any similarities with French genre paintings of rural workers wearied but ennobled by their labours, seen, for example, in Leon Lhermitte’s The Harvest of 1883 (below).

As Nancy Ireson and Barnaby Wright note in the exhibition catalogue, Cezanne’s paintings are not naturalistic depictions of their subjects in actual spaces:

None of the canvases give any sign of activity; there is no interchange between the figures, no communicative facial expression, no hint of any gesture that might lay a card on the table – the figures are posing, not playing. […]

Consistently, the Card Players paintings and the single peasant figures reject the conventions of contemporary peasant painting, which sought to present the figures as an integral part of and inseperable from their surroundings, inviting the viewer to see the peasant world as a seamless whole in which figures knew their place and belonged unquestioningly in that place, as part of a ‘natural order’.

In a further essay in the exhibition catalogue, Richard Shiff observes:

The subject of Cezanne’s …painting was Cezanne – his sensation, his seeing, his way of moving and emoting with elements of form.  He painted.

Cezanne told of how he loved ‘above all else the appearance of people who have grown old without breaking with old customs’.  So, in a sense, the Card Players and peasant paintings are the human equivalents of his repeated impressions of Montaigne Sainte-Victoire.  They are steadfast in the face of change, exuding monumentality and stillness; in Roger Fry’s words, ‘something that has found its centre and can never be moved’.

The Card Players in the order they were painted?

So – five canvases, completed in the early 1890s, though the actual sequence subject to debate.  The Courtauld exhibition catalogue suggests, based on the latest evidence from technical research that this may be the order:

1. The Moma version

2. The Barnes version

3. The Musee d’Orsay version

4. The Courtauld version

5. The Embiricos version

The final painting in the series is in a private collection: it belongs to the Greek shipping magnate George Embiricos, who rarely lends works.

This is Andrew Graham-Dixon’s verdict on the series:

Nancy Ireson and Barnaby Wright, who have written the introduction to the show’s catalogue, argue that these works are so inscrutable that their mysteries may never be fathomed; and the pictures themselves do have an intractable quality seemingly designed to repel overly exact interpretations. The playing of cards was an old Dutch subject, representing the dissolute life, but there is no trace of disapproving moralism in Cezanne’s pictures. Men with stovepipe hats and clay smoking pipes clamped between their teeth sit across from one another at tables on which playing cards are strewn like falling leaves. They seem as calm as philosophers. They wear dun-coloured clothes in dun-coloured interiors.

Something Cezanne himself said near the end of his life contains, perhaps, a clue to the pictures’ meaning. Lamenting the rapid industrialisation of the South of France, he told Jules Borely that “Today everything changes in reality, but not for me, I live in the town of my childhood … I love above all else the appearance of people who have grown old without breaking with old customs.”    It is on that same tension, the central tension in Cezanne’s art – between the confusing world of modern life and the old, comforting certainties – that the pictures of card-players seem themselves to play. The eye is drawn to the world the men inhabit: a deeply unstable place, with its tip-tilted tables, its thick, vibrating, molecularly dense air. Then the figures assert themselves, slow and solid. The only still points in this shifting universe, they resemble monuments, and yet the painter cannot quite connect with them. In certain studies the men look out to face him, but their eyes are sightless and their faces expressionless masks.

Alongside the paintings from the Card Players series the Courtauld exhibition displays related preparatory paintings of peasants, smokers and men with pipes.  There is ‘Man With a Pipe’ from the Courtauld collection:

And ‘Man With A Pipe’ from the Marion and Henry Bloch Collection:

There is ‘The Smoker’, from the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg:

And ‘Man smoking a pipe’, from the Pushkin Museum of Fine Art, Moscow:

There is ‘Man in a Blue Smock, from Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth:

And perhaps my favourite, ‘Peasant’ from a private collection.  This portrait of an unidentified figure deep in concentration has been judged by some commentators to be a portrait of an ideal peasant type, but, for me, it radiates too much individuality for that:

Leaving the exhibition, outside in the courtyard of Somerset House the annual Christmas ice rink was busy with skaters:


A visit to the Courtauld gallery

Cezanne: Route tournante

On our London trip, the visit to the Courtauld Gallery at Somerset House was very rewarding. It’s famous for its outstanding Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, such as Pissarro (below), and has an outstanding display of paintings by the Fauves, including important works by Matisse, Derain and Dufy. The painting I enjoyed most on this visit was Cezanne’s Route tournante (above).

Camille Pissarro: Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich

The gallery houses paintings by leading artists of the Bloomsbury Group, Vanessa Bell (sister of Virginia Woolf, below), Duncan Grant and Roger Fry, together with avant-garde decorative arts produced by them at their Omega Workshops.

Conversation: Vanessa Bell, 1913-1916

Paths to Fame: Turner Watercolours

At the moment there is a special exhibition of Turner watercolours. On view are works from across the artist’s career, ranging from an ambitious early view of Avon Gorge made when Turner was just sixteen years old to the monumental highly finished watercolours of his maturity and examples of the celebrated expressive late works.

Among the examples of pure watercolours on display is The Crook of Lune, looking towards Hornby Castle.

There’s a brilliant gouache, Heaped thundercloud over sea and land

The final section of the exhibition consists of five watercolours, all from the same period (from around 1835 to 1841) and having the same theme, the beach and the sea at Margate. John Ruskin especially praised Dawn after the Wreck (below): no shipwreck, debris or drowned corpses are visible yet Ruskin wrote, ‘some little vessel – a collier probably – has gone down in the night, all hands lost: a single dog has come ashore. Utterly exhausted, its limbs failing under it, and sinking into the sand, it stands howling and shivering.’ Ruskin’s passion for Turner’s late watercolours and his sentimental interpretation of their subject matter helped to perpetuate Turner’s fame as England’s greatest painter in watercolours.

Turner: Dawn After The Wreck