Ex­hi­bi­tion of the week Cézanne Por­traits

Na­tional Por­trait Gallery, Lon­don WC2 (020-7306 0055, www.npg.org.uk). Un­til 11 Fe­bru­ary 2018

The Week - - Arts -

“It wasn’t much fun be­ing a sit­ter for one of Paul Cézanne’s por­traits,” said Alas­tair Smart in the Daily Mail. The “no­to­ri­ously ir­ri­ta­ble” artist would de­mand his sub­jects hold their pose for hours on end and would fly into a rage if they so much as twitched. Yet, as a “mag­nif­i­cent” new ex­hi­bi­tion at the Na­tional Por­trait Gallery demon­strates, his sit­ters’ suf­fer­ing was “un­ques­tion­ably worth it”. The show is the first to focus on Cézanne’s por­trai­ture in more than a cen­tury, and brings to­gether over 50 like­nesses cre­ated through­out his ca­reer, from his first ef­forts in the 1860s, to a hand­ful of “po­tent” por­traits he pro­duced shortly be­fore his death at the age of 67. It is packed with ground­break­ing im­ages, and con­firms that al­though Cézanne is best re­mem­bered for his still lifes and land­scapes, he was also a mas­ter­ful painter of the hu­man fig­ure. This is an “un­miss­able” ex­hi­bi­tion, filled with “sur­prises and in­ven­tions at ev­ery turn”. There’s no doubt­ing the qual­ity here, said Walde­mar Januszczak in The Sun­day Times. The first thing we see is Cézanne’s por­trait of his fa­ther, a “landmark” im­age full of “satir­i­cal in­tent”. Equally “mar­vel­lous” is his fi­nal self-por­trait, a ghoul­ish vi­sion in which the artist ap­pears “sunken-eyed and worn-out”. And the se­ries of like­nesses of his wife, Hortense, are the clear “high­lights” of the show. How­ever, what could have been a “mo­men­tous” event is let down by lack­lus­tre schol­ar­ship: from the be­gin­ning, the cap­tions present us with “jar­gonis­tic” and fre­quently in­cor­rect ex­pla­na­tions, let­ting down a “heavy­weight” col­lec­tion of paint­ings with a “light­weight set of un­der­stand­ings”. The re­sult is an ex­hi­bi­tion that feels “timid, un­in­formed and laced with con­tem­po­rary prej­u­dices”.

Nev­er­the­less, the sheer num­ber of mas­ter­pieces here makes it a con­tender for “show of the year”, said Mark Hud­son in The Daily Tele­graph. Al­though he pro­fessed to have no in­ter­est in cap­tur­ing his sit­ters’ per­son­al­i­ties, Cézanne brings his sub­jects to life with “im­mense force”. The fig­ure seen in Woman with a Cof­fee Pot (1895), for ex­am­ple, has the “scale and pres­ence of a moun­tain”, while the anx­ious ex­pres­sion worn by the sub­ject of Man with Crossed Arms (1900) seems to be­tray his psy­chol­ogy. More than a cen­tury af­ter they were painted, the works here still look not just “fresh”, but “rad­i­cal”. This ex­hi­bi­tion both reaf­firms Cézanne’s sta­tus as the “fa­ther of mod­ern art” and presents us with the “most dy­namic, pen­e­trat­ing and plain bril­liant paint­ing we’ll see this year”.

One of the por­traits of Madame Cézanne (R581): a clear high­light

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