- The Washington Times - Friday, January 27, 2006

When Paul Cezanne said, “I will astonish Paris with an apple,” he charted a course that revolutionized art. Now, the National Gallery of Art is celebrating his groundbreaking modernism with “Cezanne in Provence,” a stunning assemblage of 117 oils, watercolors, drawings and prints.

The gallery is the first to document the artist’s emotional ties to his home in Aix-en-Provence and focus on his intense identification with the nearby Montagne Sainte-Victoire.

Exhibit co-curator Philip Conisbee, the museum’s senior curator of European paintings, says he wants to show “Cezanne in his time and place, rather than as the father of modern art.” He focuses, therefore, on Cezanne’s studies of nature, the artist’s most challenging subject.

Though still lifes provided him with just a few selected objects to structure with cube-like color daubs, landscapes presented disorganized natural forms to order into a harmonious unity. He had painted 250 by the end of his life.

The Washington show is one of many commemorating “The Year of Cezanne,” marking the centenary of his death on Oct. 23, 1906.

Among others is the Museum of Modern Art’s traveling “Pioneering Modern Painting: Cezanne and Pissarro 1865-1885,” which closed Jan. 16 at the Los Angeles County Museum and opens in Paris’ Musee d’Orsay next month. It reveals Cezanne’s intimate ties with the French Impressionist movement.

Artists are known for their obsessions. Cezanne focused on the looming Montagne Saint-Victoire, Vermeer on contented 17th-century Dutch women and the ancient Greeks on idealized female nudes.

Here we see Cezanne obsessing on the peculiarly shaped mountain by painting what seems like every foot of it. He built a special studio on the Les Lauves hillside outside of Aix to paint the exhibit’s 17 views — among many others — from the hillside. Several other landscapes focus on boulders that seem to explode from the nearby Bibemus Quarry.

The exhibit includes four oils from the artist’s “Large Bathers” series depicting female bathers posed near water. A wall of three of these monumental canvases in a middle gallery leads to the bigger, majestic image in the last room that tops the list of Cezanne’s most innovative last efforts. These nudes, all painted from imagination or archival materials, rank with the mountain in their forward-looking, cylindrical, spherical and conelike forms.

The nudes upset many of his contemporaries. According to the exhibit label, the English painter Gerald Kelly recalled a visit to Cezanne’s studio in 1905: “He showed us what I thought was a perfectly beastly picture … a huge thing … women rather like trees, and the trees rather like women. Very large, very miserable.”

In fact, the last exhibit’s largest bather directly anticipates Pablo Picasso’s “Desmoiselles d’Avignon,” one of the last century’s great icons.

Though Cezanne painted more than 85 bathers, Mr. Conisbee and co-curator Denis Coutagne, director of the Granet Museum in Aix-en-Provence, focus on Cezanne’s Provencal landscapes, including the always varied “Montagne Sainte-Victoire”; strangely distanced portraits of family and friends at his banker father’s estate, Jas de Bouffan (“House of the Winds”); and the color and light of the quarry and the nearby coastal town called L’Estaque.

The exhibit’s entry gallery shocks with Cezanne’s heavily impastoed, palette-knifed, Gustave Courbet-like landscapes and portraits. “The Artist’s Father, Reading ‘L’Evenement” gleams with built-up layers, as does “Uncle Dominique in a Cotton Cap” and his school friend “Antony Valabregue.”

Yet there is a strange distancing. Cezanne’s father sits upright like a wooden pillar while his uncle stares vacantly into space. We’re reminded of Kelly’s description of the nudes as trees.

Only in the artist’s loving, sympathetic portrait of his wife, “Madame Cezanne in the Conservatory,” does he reveal an emotional directness.

The first gallery also holds Cezanne’s first try at the Montagne Sainte-Victoire, his “Chestnut Trees at the Jas de Bouffan in Winter.” Though the mountain is brought much too close, he shows his later passion for it here.

The artist significantly builds on the motif in the “Montagne Sainte-Victoire, Gardanne and Bellevue” gallery. There the curators mounted one of their special “walls” that show Cezanne elaborating on an idea. His “Montagne” from London’s Courtauld Institute Galleries shows the artist knifing and piercing space by connecting two foreground trees.

Another work, simply titled “Montagne,” presents a slender sapling leaning to the right, while a second tree balances with a left configuration.

Cezanne suffered from diabetes, and the “Bibemus and Chateau Noir” room reveals his increasing dread of death. The artist treasured the silence and solitude of the quarry, where he thrust sharply and geometrically cut rocks upward, as in “Bibemus Quarry,” circa 1895.

The portrait of his Chateau Noir employee “The Gardener Vallier” also transmits Cezanne’s black, despairing mood at the time.

The triumphant apotheosis of seven late images of “Montagne Sainte-Victoire” at the show’s end is in itself worth a visit to this extraordinary exhibit.

WHAT: “Cezanne in Provence”

WHERE: National Gallery of Art, Constitution Avenue at Fourth Street Northwest

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays through May 7

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/737-4215

ONLINE: www.nga.gov.

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