Exhibition of the week Cézanne Portraits
National Portrait Gallery, London WC2 (020-7306 0055, www.npg.org.uk). Until 11 February 2018
“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”.