Re­trac­ing the birth­place, life and mus­ings of master French artist Paul Cézanne in Aix-en-Provence.

Vacations & Travel - - Contents - BY UL­RIKE LEMMIN-WOOLFREY

As I sip my aper­i­tif on the ter­race of Les Deux Gar­cons on Cours Mirabeau, a café fre­quented by Paul Cézanne and his best friend Émile Zola around 100 years ago, I ex­pe­ri­ence first hand how the fa­mous light of Provence and es­pe­cially of Aix changes the at­mos­phere dra­mat­i­cally and in­spires artists.

The honey-hued build­ings across the wide, mostly pedes­tri­anised boule­vard op­po­site me turn golden, the plane trees shim­mer, the peo­ple seem to slow in the af­ter­noon glow and shad­ows move lan­guorously across the pave­ment. As Cézanne once said: “Shadow is a colour as light is; light and shadow are only the re­la­tion of two tones.” If any­thing good were to come from me pick­ing up a paint­brush, I prob­a­bly would have done it there and then to cap­ture the light and shad­ows.

This is the town which is not only loved by tourists, French and for­eign, the heart of Provence, with the light and the air ver­i­fy­ing the mix of hilly coun­try­side and prox­im­ity of the Mediter­ranean. The colours are un­doubt­edly Mediter­ranean, as are the of­fer­ings in the restau­rants and shops. This is where Cézanne was born on 19 Jan­uary 1839 to a wealthy bank­ing fa­ther and ar­tis­ti­cally-minded mother; where he lived and worked pro­lif­i­cally with only a cou­ple of in­ter­ludes in Paris. Here he crossed the lines be­tween Im­pres­sion­ism and Cu­bism, but, although revered by fel­low artists, did not achieve recog­ni­tion un­til a few years be­fore his death.

Cézanne painted and sketched all his life, and de­spite hav­ing to bow to his fa­ther, who funded him and forced him to study law, he si­mul­ta­ne­ously stud­ied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Aix, and kept the com­pany of pain­ters of his times, such as Camille Pis­sarro. His first solo ex­hi­bi­tion fi­nally came to fruition in 1895 in Paris. How­ever of­ten he trav­elled to Paris, his heart and life was here, in Aix, and I was go­ing to see just what made this town and its sur­round­ings so spe­cial to him.

Con­sult­ing a map from the Tourist Of­fice, I start fol­low­ing the golden but­tons em­bossed with a ‘C’ on the ground, from Cézanne’s statue right there on the side of the vast round­about that is Place Charles de Gaulle.

As I dive into the much qui­eter side streets, past the cin­ema called – guess what? – Le Cézanne (but alas not on the list of Cézanne high­lights), down to the school where Cézanne and Zola fa­mously met, I am tem­po­rar­ily dis­tracted by the gor­geous Arts Cen­tre in the Hô­tel de Cau­mont, once a pri­vate man­sion, where I stum­ble across a film about Cézanne.

Brim­ming with in­for­ma­tion, I am fur­ther side-tracked by a su­perb café and book­shop called Book in Bar with plenty of English books and rather good cakes just op­po­site. Ex­plor­ers need sus­te­nance, right? And I did keep in mind, that these were the lanes fre­quented by Cézanne and his friend, Cézanne al­ways car­ry­ing colours and a sketch­book, whereas Zola was never with­out a book of po­etry.

Onward and up­ward through the gen­tile streets of this quartier, I head past Cézanne’s sis­ter’s house and the ad­dress where his wife and son lived while he stayed with his mother, up to Musée Granet. Here I fi­nally see his fa­mous Les

Baigneuses (the fe­male bathers) but soon re­alise that Cézanne never painted any­thing just once. There are many ver­sions of The Bathers, in­clud­ing his most fa­mous, The Large Bathers

(Les Gran­des Baigneuses), which is on dis­play in Philadel­phia, while the moun­tain out­side of Aix which so in­spired him, Mon­tagne Saint-Vic­toire, fea­tures in count­less paint­ings.

I hop and skip to 28 rue de l’Opéra, where Paul Cézanne was born 180 years ago and fall un­der the spell of old Aix.

It seems that Aix is pretty much split in half by the grand Cours Mirabeau. The lower side full of grand houses and mu­se­ums, is quiet, clean, filled with grand fa­cades in pale sand­stone, whereas the north­ern side is cen­tre ville, the heart of old Aix, and made up of myr­iad of tiny al­ley­ways, con­fus­ing loops and pas­sages, cob­ble­stones and full of life. I dive right into the tiny Pas­sage Agard next to Les Deux Gar­cons (in­side the Pas­sage is the Fro­magerie du Pas­sage, with its fab­u­lous cheese shop and roof top restau­rant) and me­an­der along the lit­tle streets around the im­pres­sive Ap­peals Court of Provence. No sign of Cézanne here, he was ob­vi­ously well be­haved.

Pas­tel and burnt or­ange-hued build­ings with shabby chic shut­ters and of­ten beau­ti­fully parked bi­cy­cles or just-so win­dow boxes make this old town a pho­tog­ra­pher’s – and In­sta­gram­mer’s – de­light, ev­ery­thing is pic­ture-per­fect. I find a lit­tle mar­ket on Place Richelme, and a per­fect café ter­race on Place des Trois Ormeaux, where ac­cord­ing to leg­end, the lo­cal hang­ings used to take place. There is a small mar­ket held here daily, not a patch on the gi­gan­tic mar­ket that stretches along Cours Mirabeau every Satur­day, but more man­age­able and very invit­ing.

“I hop and skip to 28 rue de l’Opéra, where Paul Cézanne was born 180 years ago and fall un­der the spell of old Aix”

But Cézanne is catch­ing up with me again with a sign by the Town Hall, telling me he mar­ried his long-term lover Marie-Hortense Fi­quet there on 28 April 1886. Alas, the next land­mark I find is Cathe­drale Saint-Saveur, where his mother was chris­tened in 1854, and Paul Cézanne’s fu­neral was held on 24 Oc­to­ber 1906. But I was get­ting ahead of time and de­cided to hop on the lo­cal bus no.5 (di­rec­tion Brunet) to the stop ap­pro­pri­ately called Cézanne, to see his stu­dio be­fore I let him die.

The Ate­lier de Cézanne (Cézanne’s Stu­dio) is a mag­i­cal place. Time travel seems pos­si­ble, and I am trans­ported right back to those few years in which he searched out this hide­away and painted in the light-in­fused stu­dio. The small house, de­signed by Cézanne him­self and the plot cho­sen for its seclu­sion and views, is set in a lovely gar­den with se­duc­tively placed benches per­fect for day dream­ing, or be­com­ing in­spired, if you wish. The views through the trees show Aix and sur­round­ings, and that light is once more present. The in­te­rior of the stu­dio where he painted be­tween 1902 un­til his death in 1906, has been left just as it was and is a per­fect time cap­sule.

Even to an un­trained eye many of the arte­facts can be recog­nised from his paint­ings. The man liked to choose a sub­ject and run with it. The skulls, an – ad­mit­tedly re­freshed – bowl of ap­ples, and the olive pot have been painted many times over. The pot re­port­edly fea­tures in 22 of his paint­ings. There is the large par­ti­tion of wall, where he slid the enor­mous

Large Bathers can­vas out of the way. There are his frames and brushes, hat and coats. Once again, in­spi­ra­tion nearly made me want to paint, but with­out the ap­pro­pri­ate skill set, I re­sisted once more.

In­stead, I clam­bered up the hill, some 15 min­utes from the stu­dio, and found the so-called Ter­rain des pein­tres, a view point across the land­scape dom­i­nated by the Sainte-Vic­toire Moun­tain that was one of his favourite sub­jects to paint. There are repli­cas of some of his paint­ings fea­tur­ing said moun­tain, so you can see ex­actly how he chose a sub­ject and then painted it in dif­fer­ent con­di­tions, be it light, time of day or year, or an­gle.

For an­other site of Cézanne’s in­spi­ra­tion, I de­cided to hop on two fur­ther buses (no.12 into town, then the no.6 to Park­ing des Trois Bon Dieux) and ar­rived in the out­skirts of Aix, in the Car­rières de Bibé­mus, a for­mer stone quarry, and some stun­ning coun­try­side with, ob­vi­ously, views across to THAT moun­tain. Even if you were not in­ter­ested in Cézanne, or the 30-odd paint­ings he did in this wild ter­rain, the walk it­self is stun­ning and well worth it.

While traips­ing through the un­der­growth off the usual path, I met Jackie from the UK who also ex­plored the trail alone. She was a self-pro­claimed pain­ter-groupie and spent most of her an­nual hol­i­days search­ing out sites con­nected with fa­mous artists. She summed Aix up per­fectly: “Here is it just as much about Cézanne as it is about Aix. They work to­gether very har­mo­niously, and the com­bi­na­tion made it into my favourite trip yet.”

Pho­tog­ra­phy by Ul­rike Lemmin-Woolfrey.

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