Here’s looking at you, Cézanne

Cezanne’s Self Portrait with Bowler Hat 1885-1886.

DO YOU REMEMBER a time when the world was a different place culturally, and the careful curation of an exhibition could be allowed the time and energy of nine whole years in its inception? The Cézanne exhibition central to this Exhibitions on Screen documentary ticks all those glorious boxes of time carefully spent by well-heeled curators in making a project of this nature perfect. It’s on show at Cinema Nouveaux countrywide in two more screenings, on 26 and 28 February.

Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), if you’ve had a smidgeon of a traditional art history education, was a French artist who was considered one of the Post Impressionists, alongside people of the ilk of Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, contemporaries of his. But unlike either of them, the finer dramas of his life were never part of his work’s narrative on a popular or public level. A painter’s painter in every sense of the word, he was the son of a wealthy banker and didn’t do wild things like cut off his ear, drunk too much absinthe with prostitutes or commit suicide dramatically.  

Thus, Cézanne is not a part of the sensationalist machine which grinds art history to the lowest common denominator in the name of shocking drama or gruesome social detail. And perhaps sadly, or perhaps to his immortal credit, the value that he has brought to the changing faces of art history is internalised amongst serious painters, over whom he has had an incredible influence, spawning as he did, the kind of thinking that made Picasso, Picasso, Giacometti, Giacometti and Modigliani, Modigliani, to name but a few.

And in terms of your visual access to portraits – in particular – including an astonishingly rich array of self-portraits by Cézanne, this film is a remarkable and unique gem. Cézanne has never been acknowledged as a portraitist. His work with the idiosyncrasies of space and volume with the tools of landscape and still life have enjoyed much more intellectual coverage. But portraits there are, and lots of them. And they are simply earth-shatteringly fine. Not necessarily because they are perfect, but because in their brush marks and washes, in their inconsistencies and sense of finding themselves, they are alive and fresh.

The rub, however, comes with the contents of the talking heads, which digresses from a celebration of the man in his context, quite considerably, while it holds tight to the old rubrics of a documentary film about an artist. The film has no overriding voice and relies on letters written by, to and about Cézanne, by people of the ilk of his friends Émile Zola, Émile Bernard and his son, Paul, to name but a few. It also relies on comments by the curatorial team behind the exhibition project. The content teeters around hypotheses about anecdotes of Cézanne’s life. Was his wife Hortense bored or unhappy? Why did his father reduce Cézanne’s monthly stipend after he discovered his son was a father?

Sadly, these types of elements do not hang well or even meaningfully with a reflection of a man who lived and died well over a hundred years ago and took pains, then, to focus on his work and not publicise the domestic details of his life. For this reason, this film is lacking. If you could switch off the sound and just glory in the magnificence of his works; if you could grasp an inkling into the artistic context of the man, through this film, you would come out of this work, the richer.

In short, if you knew nothing about Cézanne, when you enter the movie theatre, you will, essentially, be none the wiser, from a history perspective, when you leave. You will, however, be enriched in your head and heart by the sensitive and wise filming of great and timeless masterpieces, many of which have never before been reproduced on popular platforms.

  • Cézanne: Portrait of a Life is directed by Phil Grabsky. It screens at Cinema Nouveaux in Rosebank, Johannesburg; Brooklyn, Pretoria; Gateway, Durban and V&A Waterfront, Cape Town, on 26 and 28 February.

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