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The Courtauld Cezanne

Courtauld Gallery
Until 5 October

'Cylinder, sphere and cone': Cézanne's Lac d'Annecy, 1896.

Cézanne has always been a controversial figure. His famous injunction to 'treat nature as cylinder, sphere and cone', often claimed as the herald of cubism, is immediately followed by a shockingly reactionary statement: '....everything placed in perspective so that each side of an object,of a plane, leads to a central point'. Such observations can be studied first hand in the nine letters from Cézanne displayed at the heart of this exhibition.

Though small, the Courtauld Cézanne collection is perfectly formed, containing some of the painter's most iconic works. Admire in breathless close-up paintings previously only encountered in coffee-table books: the sphinx-like Card Players; the glowing Pot of Primroses and Fruit; that strangely lop-sided cherub, Still Life with Plaster Cupid and of course the majestic Mont St Victoire. Less familiar are the vibrant watercolours, their multi-coloured glazes and exuberant pencil lines richly mingled: Apples, Bottle and Chairback.

As a revolutionary artist Cézanne had unlikely beginnings. He quit law school to study in Paris, met Pissarro but was rejected by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, briefly joined his father's bank, and spent long hours copying the masters in the Louvres. His palette was dark and gelatinous, with no hint of the experiments to come. Pissarro persuaded him to paint direct from nature; lightening his palette and using only 'the three primary colours and their immediate derivatives.

And so Cézanne embarked on the Impressionist adventure, even taking part in their first exhibition in 1874. But he could not long be satisfied with merely capturing the fleeting effects of light. Art needed to get to grips with deeper realities: organising intelligence must impose structure on the tumultuous emotions experienced in front of nature. There began a life-long struggle to free himself from the shackles of representationalism and establish something quite new, where perspective is de-throned, space telescoped and modelling achieved in terms of colour alone - the whole existing as an object in itself, parallel yet not identical with, nature.

What is to be made of Cézanne? Compared with other Post-Impressionists his paintings have an ambiguity which defies easy interpretation. The National Gallery still dismissed him in 1923, refusing to spend money from the industrialist Samuel Courtauld on Cézanne, so Courtauld started his own collection.

The Dutch evangelical art historian Hans Rookmaaker, saw Cézanne's struggle to unite what the eye sees with the underlying structures of reality, as the last desperate efforts at a unified worldview of a painter who cannot undo the rejection of the absolutes that made that possible. Not all, by a long chalk, would agree. An artist I spoke to practically melted into tears describing how truly, for her, Cezanne conveyed the ambivalence of vision!

'He is just an eye, but what an eye!' In some ways Cezanne's description of Monet could be applied to himself. For all its contemporary subversivenesss, and however tame it seems to us now , his work is a visual adventure: vibrant in colour, exciting in texture, daring in its handling of space. Go and see it.

Pat Harvey