A unique exhibition of Cézanne asks us to look through the eyes of the artist: slowly, deliberately and with each brushstroke

“Why Cezanne? Why today?

These are the questions the curators of a unique new retrospective on the French painter at the Art Institute of Chicago asked themselves as they set to work a few years ago. When it comes to Cézanne, who, perhaps more than any other artist, laid the foundations of the 20th century avant-garde, how do you say something new – and how do you say it in a way that can be understood by someone who’s never picked up a brush?

The curators, Gloria Groom and Caitlin Haskell, decided to take a close look at Cézanne’s canvases to find their answers – examining, through advanced imaging techniques, how the artist confronted his own questions about the urgency paint through every brushstroke he ever made.

What they discovered is that we can all still learn something about the medium by doing the same thing.

Paul Cézanne, Bathers (The Great Bathers) (circa 1894-1905). Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Featured in the Art Institute exhibition, simply titled “Cezanne», are 80 oils, 40 watercolors and drawings, and two complete sketchbooks. It features some of the artist’s greatest hits, such as The bather (1885) and The basket of apples (circa 1893).

With loans from five different continents, including pieces once belonging to Matisse, Picasso and other contemporaries who considered themselves among Cézanne’s biggest fans, this is the largest retrospective devoted to the artist in more than a quarter century. (After touring Chicago, the exhibit will travel to Tate Modern this October.)

The show, explained Groom, asks its visitors to slow down and embrace the discipline and determination that Cézanne himself brought to his work. “He’s really an artist who worked very slowly, came back to it very thoughtfully. This is why Impressionism was not for him.

Paul Cézanne, Sainte-Victoire Mountain with a Large Pine (circa 1887).  © Courtauld Gallery / Bridgeman Images.

Paul Cézanne, Sainte-Victoire mountain at Grand Pin (circa 1887). © Courtauld Gallery / Bridgeman Images.

You may also notice at this point in the article that I have elided the accent on the “e” that is usually found in Cézanne’s name. The exhibition too. This is how the artist wrote it, the curators explained, and so this is the version they adopted for the title, catalog and wall texts of the exhibition. It may seem like a semantic shift, but it symbolizes something more: the organizer’s dogmatic devotion to Cézanne’s own vision.

You’ll also find subtle examples of this commitment elsewhere in the series. For example, Groom and Haskell worked with conservators to remove all traces of synthetic varnish from the eight oil paints owned by the Art Institute, which had been applied over the past years, leaving their respective surfaces bare – another preference of Cezanne.

This same group of paintings was subjected to a “a whole battery of imaging techniques,” including infrared X-ray scans, Haskell said, as she and her partner turned to Cézanne’s meticulous techniques for their own curatorial clues. “When you do that and you start thinking about painting really at the brand level, what you start to have is a type of paint that’s pretty honest about how it’s built and makes you think about how of which it is constructed.” Haskell added.

Paul Cézanne, The basket of apples (circa 1893).  Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Paul Cézanne, The basket of apples (circa 1893). Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Fruity still lifes, sunny landscapes, bathers assailed by verdant flora: Cézanne tirelessly revisits the same subjects. In an exhibition like the one in Chicago, the repetition can make his works feel like studies – the efforts of a painter perfecting his craft before applying it to more sophisticated scenes. And in a way, it’s true: Cézanne never stopped perfecting his technique.

But with this repetition, the show also reveals something else.

“What you start to see over the course of the exhibition is an artist trying to figure out how to make a painting for himself and doing it by building his work feeling by feeling,” Haskell said.

“He’s trying something quite different,” Groom added, “trying to express what he feels in a shot that will communicate a sense of emotion to us. It’s hard to express, like everything that touches the intangible and art.

“It was a liberating thing for artists,” he concluded. “As an audience, we have to work a little harder to fully appreciate what he’s doing.”

Cezanneis on view through September 5, 2022 at the Art Institute of Chicago.

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