Monday, 18 September 2017

'Portraits by Cezanne' at Musee D'Orsay, Paris

On my recent trip to Paris I saw the 'Portraits by Cezanne' exhibition at Musee D'Orsay which opens at the National Portrait Gallery in London in October. That gives me another opportunity to see this excellent exhibition.

The exhibition starts off, as you'd expect, with early portraits as Cezanne found his own style. There were a few portraits of his uncle differentiated by wearing different hats, something he seems to do with his own later self-portraits, wearing hats of various shapes and colours. The consistent thing is the bushy beard, both for his uncle and himself. He's not the poster-boy for the exhibition however, that's reserved for 'Boy in the Red Waistcoat' which works really well with the splash of vivid red to liven up the colour palette.

To illustrate Cezanne's 'hats maketh the man' approach, I particularly liked his 'Self-portrait with a White Hat' with Cezanne looking straight out at the viewer wearing a white hat of sorts - or is it a bandanna tied around his head? Hair and beard are well kept and under control unlike in the self-portrait I'm more familiar with in the National Gallery in London. That painting is on loan to this exhibition and it was nice to see it again. I think I prefer the self-portrait with the white hat though, showing the artist in his prime, gazing out at the viewer in three-quarter pose, a man assured of himself and in control of his art.

As well as painting his own portrait, Cezanne painted his wife endlessly. There are half a dozen portraits of Madame Cezanne in the exhibition, the poor, long-suffering wife. I could well imagine her saying, 'ok, just another few minutes but I really need to make the dinner...' as Cezanne started yet another portrait.

Another portrait I particularly liked was 'Gustave Geffroy' from around 1896, with the good Monsieur Geffroy sitting in front of his book-case with books scattered on his desk. I suspect he's copying favourite passages into his notebook to keep them with him. The first thing I noticed were the orange-spines books in the book-case and wondered if Penguin paid Cezanne a royalty for inventing its trademark colour. That took me into the painting and could examine it with different eyes.

If you don't know the sitter or his/her history, then you need something to grab your attention to pull you into the painting, and those books did it for me. I assume the catalogue explains who he was and his relationship with Cezanne but, since the catalogue was in French then I have no idea. I look forward to reading about Gustave in the National Portrait Gallery catalogue.

Another portrait I loved was the one of Maggie Smith or, rather, 'Woman in Blue' to give the painting it's true title. As soon as I saw this one I thought of Maggie and still do. I can just see her sitting at a table waiting to be served a glass of sherry and sighing because of the wait. The slight downward glance and the angle of the hat, the plain blue jacket and dress against the colourful tablecloth all serve to give the painting a slight air of sadness, but I assume a momentary sadness. I'm sure she'll perk uo when the sherry is delivered.

It's a very simple portrait that cries out for a story to be draped around it and I hope the National Portrait Gallery version of the catalogue will do that. I want to know who she is and what was going on in her life at the time of the portrait.

One of the final portraits is another self-portrait by Monsieur Cezanne, this time as an old man whose beard has turned grey and he's gone all trendy by shaving it into a goatee beard. A large floppy beret tops off the portrait. The robust, beefy man of the earlier self-portraits has shrunk a bit with age but he's still using hats to cover his baldness. I looked at this portrait and thought old man and then wondered why he bothered to shave the sides of his beard? Was he still vain at that age? was it the fashion at the time? I don't know, but after all the earlier fully bearded portraits it did rather stand out for me.

I didn't realise that Cezanne was such a portraitist until this exhibition - I usually associate him in my head as a landscape artist because that's the genre I've mainly seen in his paintings. This exhibition shines a new light on him. That's always a good thing.

The exhibition opens at the National Portrait Gallery in London on 26 October and I'd certainly recommend it. I'll be going again to say 'bonjour' to Monsieur Cezanne.

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