Cezanne Art for Art’s sake

Blog — 03 Feb 2023

The opening of the Tate Modern in 2000, was a fitting way to mark the turn of the Century. Unlike the vacuous Millennium Dome, it felt exciting, dynamic and world beating. Indeed in 2019 it was London’s most visited attraction, with over six million visitors. In the post Gehry Bilbao world, every city wanted a “Guggenheim moment”, and it has to be said that the Tate were ahead of the times by re-purposing a defunct building for cultural purposes. 20 years on and the lingering doubts I initially had are still there. It is not a particularly enjoyable building to circulate around, and the galleries have a uniformity which lacks counterpoint; however, no one can deny its success. In contrast, the Blavatnic extension, also by Herzog de Meuron, really seems to add very little to the overall experience, it feels isolated and unintegrated, with more circulation than gallery space, it is difficult to see the point of it.

Currently there is a career spanning exhibition of Paul Cezanne in the main galleries, the type of exhibition the Tate does well. Cezanne was first and foremost a painter, his work was not politically motivated, although he mixed in a circle of friends that included life-long friend Emile Zola. As is the way with galleries these days, the Tate has tried hard to develop social themes, even issuing a trigger warning that some paintings may be disturbing. Really, Cezanne?

However, ignoring the captions it can simply be read as a show about painting, technique and composition, the iterative development of a style and a way of seeing. And what is wrong with that? More often than not, the artists that attract the attention of curators today start from a political, social, or identity-based position. Aesthetics and beauty are less important than the ideological statement or message. Whilst there is a place for this, it is not always enjoyable, challenging or pleasing to look at. The annual nominations for the Turner Prize are a catalogue of such work.

It has been refreshing therefore to visit four really good exhibitions of painters who use the medium of canvas and paint to explore the world around them. The Cezanne show is comprehensive and organised as a chronological journey through his career, the themes of his work are basically limited to his family, his household and the landscape around him. A result of the repetitive nature of his paintings is perhaps why we are absorbed by the application of the paint as much as the composition.

In contrast the work of Giorgio Morandi, which is exhibited at the Estorick Gallery in Islington, is all about composition. These small studies of carefully composed bottles and jars become almost abstract compositions, using a similar colour palette of rather beautiful, muted greys browns and pastels.

Giorgio Morandi, Still Life 1953

The Foundation Louis Vuitton in the Bois de Boulogne, Paris, is hosting two exhibitions. The lower gallery houses a retrospective of American abstract expressionist Joan Mitchell an exhibition which is exceptional in its own right. The upper galleries align her work with Claude Monet, in particular the later water lily paintings at Giverney. The balance and dynamic between the two artists is astonishing, indeed in some of the later paintings it becomes difficult to distinguish who painted what. As well as demonstrating the importance of reference and context and in painting like Cezanne and Morandi, the iterative process of revisiting the familiar is explored. This is a glorious display of colour texture and surface, demonstrating the sensuality and power that oil paint has in the hands of masters.

We live in a world where we are bombarded with political messaging and woke moralising. How refreshing to spend time in the company of these artists who by pursuing their craft create work that allows us to escape from reality for a few hours.

Joan Mitchell, La Grande Vallee, 1983
Claude Monet, Waterlilies Nympheas bleus, 1916-1919