So what’s new, Mr Cézanne? His first retrospective in 30 years, now open at the Tate Modern in London, does not really provide an answer.
With 80 works, the exhibition takes visitors beyond apples and mountains to explore the sexualized violence of his Paris scenes, when Cézanne was still enmeshed in the vision of an "artist's artist", as a precursor of modern art with his pure colors, thick materials and geometric games. Jean-Claude Lebensztejn speaks of a "complex artistic personality, who has been endlessly studied without ever letting himself be totally defined." The exhibition tends to confirm this impression. Removed and disconnected from the show, the catalog mingles scientific articles and artists’ acknowledgements of debt in a mixture of creative subjectivity and art history.
In it, Gloria Groom puts forward the appealing thesis that the painter worked in a world of images. Thus, he might paint a landscape from a painting by Pissarro or repeat a portrait of his wife. He also made use of photography, copying a wood in the snow almost line for line. More unexpectedly, Lebensztejn, in his Études cézaniennes, likens his Leda to the image of a seductive woman on the label of a champagne called Nana—possibly a nod to his friend Emile Zola. It is difficult to go along with this reasoning, however, since the painter's favorite model, Hortense, is found in the same pose in compositions predating the writer's serialized novel and the registration of the champagne brand—including a Woman With a Mirror that precedes them by about a decade.
Citing other examples, art historian André Dombrowski argues that he "drew heavily on the popular imagery" of fashion magazines and advertisements. The Tate, for example, shows a period illustration alongside his Eternal Feminine, one of Cézanne's most intriguing scenes, which shows a naked woman under a temple-like canopy, with legs spread and bloodied eyes surrounded by a somewhat grotesque group consisting of a painter, a banker, a bishop and a brass band. Dombrowski found an allegory in an 1871 issue of La Vie Parisienne, showing a weeping goddess with a bleeding arm, surrounded by artists and a soldier, entitled "Poor Paris" and calling on "writers and artists to avenge her with their wit and talent." The settings are very similar. The painter's family and friends were involved in the Commune, which tore Paris apart. Cézanne's work seems to be halfway between a brothel scene and a history painting, where the women’s gouged-out eyes refer to what she does not want to see. This socio-political allusion somewhat belies the idea of the hermit of Aix-en-Provence, impervious to the world around him.
The exhibition overplays its hand by comparing Le Nègre Scipion (The Negro Scipio)—a semi-nude of a model at the Académie Suisse—with a photograph published by an American anti-slavery newspaper of a black man revealing his back, striped with swollen whip lashes. Apart from the fact that the two men do not have the same pose at all, no one knows whether Cézanne ever saw this picture. This does not prevent an American artist in the catalog from speculating that the subtle traces of red on the model's back could be wounds, whereas they are found on his arm, ear or nose and in fact illustrate Impressionistic explorations of color. To suggest that the painter was against slavery on this basis is pure fantasy. This shows the interesting side but also the limits of such visual studies, if a certain thoroughness is not applied. It is always productive to stray from the beaten track provided you don’t stray too far off course.