An awkward sod, Paul Cézanne. Solitary, touchy, moody, and curt to the point of rudeness, he wasn’t an easy man to rub along with, let alone get to know – which is one of the main reasons why there are so few biographies of him.
The other reason is that his life was almost completely devoid of action. Van Gogh went mad, Gauguin to Tahiti, Lautrec for the bottle. Cézanne did nothing but paint. The nearest he got to drama was when he upset his father by dropping out of law school. But relations were soon patched up, and dad went on to support him throughout his life (at first with a generous allowance, later with a substantial legacy).
He needed the help. As Alex Danchev reminds us in this hefty, sedulous book, Cézanne was a ‘remarkably unsuccessful’ artist. He was in his mid-thirties before he sold a painting to someone not a friend, and in his mid-fifties before he had his first solo exhibition. Indeed, says Danchev, there were times when he literally couldn’t give his work away. Unsurprisingly, he never earned much, and was forever distressed at not having made it big in Paris. As late as 1904, only a couple of years before he died, he was still longing ‘to be admitted to the Salon’.
A nobody in his own time, a knockout in ours – Cézanne was straight out of central casting’s department for misunderstood avant garde outsiders. And yet, and yet… Cézanne was less misunderstood than not understood at all. His insights and techniques were so revolutionary that they couldn’t be taken in overnight. It wasn’t until the lessons of Einstein’s special theory of relativity had penetrated the popular consciousness that the paintings of Cézanne’s final years could come to be seen as the masterpieces they had always been.
No less than Einstein’s theory, Cézanne’s late work was an attempt to unify space and time. Not for him the joyous frozen moments served up by Renaissance perspective (and warmed up by the joyous, effulgent blur of Impressionism). He wanted his own pictures to be truer to life than that. You can’t stop time, he argued, and to paint as if you can – to paint as, say, Raphael or Renoir did – is to produce no more than idealised abstractions.