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November 08, 2006

Christie Davies revels in Cézanne the geologist and marvels at the way the money was made that bought his work for Britain: Cézanne in Britain at the National Gallery

Posted by Christie Davies

Cézanne in Britain
National Gallery, London
4th October 2006 - 7th January 2007
Daily 10am - 6pm (Wednesdays until 9pm)

Cézanne was a geologist, a geomorphologist. When he looked at landscapes, he saw not just the light-effects loved by the impressionists but solidity, shape, structure, the very things you will find in a geologist or a geomorphologist's sketch book. Somewhere in the garage I still have the drawings in my old notebooks of the cirque at Llyn y Fan Fach, the lumpy profile of the Dulais valley above Pontarddulais looking up and across from the Hendy side, the waterfalls of the Afon Mellte and Afon Hepste, all done to the directions of Professor T. R. Owen who took us on field trips.

Cézanne went on excursions round the rocks of Provence in the 1860s with Darwin's correspondent, Professor Antoine-Fortuné Marion a boyhood friend from Aix-en-Provence, Professor of Natural History at Marseilles University and Director of the Museum d'Histoire Naturelle of that city. Turner and Henry Moore were equally fascinated by rocks and scenery and Barbara Hepworth observed that:

Landscape is strong - it has bones and flesh and skin and hair. It has age and history and a principle behind its evolution.
That could have been written by a geologist. Yet the artist's purpose is not the same.

The geologist's sketches of landscapes are done in order to bring out shapes derived from erosion working on rocks whose composition and formation were determined by past deposition and orogeny, eruption and deformation. They must lead to "why" and "how" questions about the long war between the earth and the sun. There is no need for painters to concern themselves with such matters. Martin Kemp wrote of the landscape that lies behind Leonardo's Mona Lisa:

The rules of mountain formation, erosion and collapse which account for the presence of lakes at different heights are obeyed in the portrayal of the landscape.
He was talking twaddle. Leonardo did not and could not know these rules because they were not known at that time.

Where the lakes actually came was as much determined by chance local conditions as by "rules". In any case why would it matter if he moved them around and put them where the aesthetic requirements of the picture demanded, even if this were geologically impossible. Would it matter if we saw the scene from different directions at one and the same time?

What is important about Cézanne's geological studies is not whether he did or did not derive from them an accurate understanding but that they confirmed, created and reinforced his intuitions about landscape as space and structure. We can perhaps see this best in Hillside in Provence, 1890-2, where the foreground is the geologist's delight, a cutting or a quarry revealing hard, fresh well layered and jointed rock, a mass of flat, vertical planes that meet in clean angles. Behind are the green and fawn squares of the fields climbing the hill and set off by the red triangles of the roof of a building on the flat next to a dark green tree. At the top is again hard ridge, high, beyond cultivation, but dark unlike the jutting out rocks in the foreground that catch the sun.

Cézanne knew how to break the landscape down into almost geometrical blocks of colour, as he had done long before in Mountains in Provence, 1879 (possibly near l'Estaque). Here the mountains fly in a line, as they often seem to in Provence. Cézanne had a happy obsession with the mountain, Mont Sainte-Victoire. We see this mountain in winter, when the bare branches of a tree in the foreground point to and reinforce the bounded shapes of the fields, overhung by the great triangular ridge of the mountain in Mont Sainte Victoire, 1890-5. We again see its distinctive profile rising abruptly from the plain and hovering above us in Mont Sainte Victoire, 1902-6.

The outline is sharp and the detail missing, as if seen in an early morning light. He must have spent the night sleeping under the tree immediately in the foreground. With a little imagination you can see Cézanne's most unusual depiction of the mountain in Still Life with Teapot, 1902-6 where he has rucked a patterned but sombre table-cloth into the shape of Mont Sainte Victoire and carefully placed before it in the lowlands the perfect roundnesses of rich glowing apples and of a contrasting light grey teapot that is white where it faces us and then recedes into blue. He could even recreate his favourite mountain at home as a still life.

Yet he had from the beginning these guiding intuitions about shape that created the finest pictures of his youth such as his wonderful early work The Stove in the Studio, 1865.

Indeed we can see these skills in The Painter's Father Louis-Auguste Cézanne, 1865. Many have read resentment into this picture, since his father wanted Cézanne to become a banker in Aix, like himself, and to prepare for this with a university training in law. Cézanne could have led an exciting, rewarding and satisfying life in the avocation of avocat, depriving disputing peasants of their land or as a banker foreclosing on their mortgages. Instead he chose the dull, drab demanding life of a painter, something that comes across in his Self-Portrait, 1880-1, where he places himself against the imprisoning diamonds of a provincial wall-paper consisting of dark red lines on mustard. You could be in the house of Elisabeth Amiot.

Cézanne could, then, have dealt with the landscape at the purest level of abstraction, as numbers on a balance sheet held in place by the immutable boundaries of contract and truly established his ownership of it. Instead he retreated into reality, into the shape and structure of the physical things out there. His father did in fact give him an allowance, albeit one the son saw as meagre, to study art in Paris and he was one of Cézanne's favourite models. The wall of his father's house was adorned with this portrait. The well lit face, hands and newspaper of The Painter's Father Louis-Auguste Cézanne, who was always reading, are fixed by the dark masses of his solid black-clad limbs. He is held in place by the tight red squares of the large tiles on the floor that recede towards a black featureless wall and give the picture depth.

Cézanne in Britain is a misleading name for the exhibition, since he never came here in search of our fog or to escape the Hun. When not in Provence, he worked in or near Paris. Cézanne in Britain as a title makes about as much sense as the name of the historical painting, Lenin in Poland, (Lenin w Polsce) commissioned in 1965 and completed in 1967 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Russian revolution. The picture by Rabinovitch, which still hangs in a gallery in Kraków, shows Bronstein in bed with Krupskaya. Where is Lenin?

Rather, this is an exhibition of those of Cézanne's paintings to be found in British museums and galleries and of the story of their acquisition. The pioneering purchasers were Gwendolyn and Margaret Davies, once the richest spinsters in Britain, grand-daughters of the super-rich coal owner "Davies yr Ocean", "Top-sawyer", David Davies Llandinam, who built the busy port, now slum, of Barry and the railway that took steam-coal there for export. This provided competition for Cardiff docks, which were deprived of their monopoly and forced down prices. As a strong Nonconformist he did the same to the Church of England.

His grand-daughters Gwendolyn and Margaret, were both fervent Calvinistic Methodists, sabbatarians and lifelong teetotallers who would not dance, nor go to the theatre but they did buy Cézanne, even some of his more daring nude bathing scenes. They did, though, draw the line at Degas' sleazy pictures of the opera. Gwendolyn went to Paris at the height of the First World War, while the city was under regular bombardment from the German's Big Bertha, even though it was seventy five miles away, to buy up Cézanne's work. The sisters later offered their collection to the Tate but the Tate snootily declined them.

Today, ironically, their Cézannes hang in a museum in Cardiff, the city of their grandfather's bitter business rival, the Marquess of Bute, whose exploitation of his monopoly control over the docks there had led to Davies's opening up of Barry. It is singularly inappropriate that the current Cézanne exhibition at the National Gallery is backed by Gaz de France, which even the EU sees as a lurking monopoly in the field of energy distribution. Have the organisers no sense of economic history?

Maynard Keynes bought Cézanne's exquisite Apples, 1878, when in Paris for the Versailles peace conference. Red and ripe, yellow and mellow, green as ungolden undelicious, they sit like billiard balls, sometimes kissing, sometimes apart, their stalks now pointing toward us like winking frogspawn, now up, now away from us. Keynes knew his apples. Keynes had gone to an auction of paintings by Cézanne in war-ruined France with the Director of Britain's National Gallery to pick up some economic consequences of the peace. The Director refused to bid for Cézanne, so Keynes bought this one for himself.

Keynes was a very successful speculator in the market place both with his own money and with that of King's College, Cambridge. When he thought the price of a commodity was going to rise faster than the general estimate of the market, he would put up the money for an agreed future purchase. When the price rose faster (as he had expected) he would sell again, never having had to take delivery and King's would pocket the difference. On one occasion they were nearly caught out over wheat futures and plans were made to fill the hideous King's College Chapel with sacks of grain. It would at least have shut up those pip-squeaking choirboys, who used to walk around in crocodiles, wearing top hats and tailcoats and looking like "Dave" Cameron before his voice broke. With a bit of luck the pressure of the weight of the mass of bags would have burst the entire porcine building open and driven the buttresses into the ground like tent-pegs. Sadly the market recovered and Keynes's plan never had to be implemented.

Later acquisitions of paintings by Cézanne arrived or remained in Britain in the same way - through the profits of speculation. Where once we paid for Cézanne with money made from coal and textiles, now they are the fruits of finance capitalism, the very force that underpinned Cézanne's career in the first place. Well, when everything goes wrong for Britain, thanks to that idiot Gordon Brown who has paid for today by destroying tomorrow, we can at least sell our Cézannes to the Chinese. Where Keynes put French failure in a hedge, we have a French hedge against failure.

An appreciation of the artist's genius should not lead us to conclude that all the purchases of his work by British galleries have been wise. Why should any gallery want to own Cézanne's early sordid melodramas such as The Abduction, 1867 or The Murder, 1870. The director of the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool said, when he bought the latter
in 1964, that:

It seems fitting that Liverpool….., in whose past grim and terrible incidents lie buried, should now own a painting which is so powerfully evocative of the depths of human nature.
Why a city still as sunk in crime, violence and disorder as Liverpool should need such a picture as a reminder is unclear. If a Liverpudlian wants to see a grim and terrible incident, all he or she has to do is to venture out into the street after dark. Should they wish to look into and to visualise the depths of human nature that characterise their city, all they need is a mirror. Liverpool isn't a city, it is a morgue.

I am not saying you can not paint a good picture of murder, merely that Cézanne didn't. He was simply not in the same league as our own beloved Walter Sickert, who had a far more intimate knowledge of the subject.

But we do not remember a painter by his worst work, but by his best. Where Cézanne is concerned, much of that best is in Britain and the best of the best is now waiting in the exhibition at the National Gallery for the reader to enjoy.

Professor Christie Davies is the author of Dewi the Dragon, Talybont , Y Lolfa , 2006 a collection of stories set in the magic landscape he studied when a young geology student.


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