For the first time in a long time I have come across art I don’t really like and that is Cezanne’s portrait. Bold statement to open with but let me explain why.
The National Portrait Gallery is currently holding a display of Cezanne’s portraits and various people had said good things, to be honest I’d have gone even if they hadn’t. It is on until 11th February 2018. However I had the curious experience of liking the pictures when I first went in but the longer I stayed there, the less and less I liked them.
Let me explain why. Cezanne’s portraits oscillate between the dark and brooding like the mad picture of his sister, or his self-portraits, to the colourful. They all have the same feature though and that is the sour pose of the sitter.
There are some interesting conundrum around his portraits. He never took commissions for them, sold very few, completed very few and only a couple of people ever go their finished portrait. Most of them remained at his home until after his death. I think I know why.
Some of the portraits are very fine. The one’s of his father and his uncle, the self portraits of him in a bowler hats. They have a real affection to them and painted as if there is a real personality there. The one’s of his uncles where the paint is whacked on in great swathes with a pallet knife. Similarly the one of Victor Choquet (who actually go the picture) actually makes you feel like you are seeing a person.
The rest have something slightly unsettling about them, something off putting and it took me a while to work out what it was. Don’t get me wrong these are in many way’s brilliant paintings. The use of composition, of colour, the way the paint is applied. All of this is masterful. For example Madame Cezanne in a blue dress with the interesting hues on the dress and the way the left of the painting is dark brown and the right light blue to give more of a 3d effect.
Similarly different fields of colour are used to great effect, like the famous painting of the boy in the red waistcoat, with the red waistcoat sitting starkly on a mostly blue background. So far, so a genius at work. They are excellent paintings, but they are rubbish portraits.
Look at the eyes, if you go. For all but a few they are dead and empty, often just empty dark blobs. At look at the way the paintings are constructed particularly woman with a coffee jug. It is person as object. The blurb about Cezanne’s philosophy hints at this in that he didn’t want a psychological portrait he just wanted to paint what was there. Thus you get a person used just as a device, a piece in a composition in the painting. These are paintings of people at all, people are just used because they are an interesting shape.
Once I noticed this I couldn’t unsee it. It made me not like the paintings, it made me find them cold and alien. I think this is why he never sold any, or did commissions. There is a sort of hate, distaste of the person behind all of this, thus it seems to me. The few times he lets himself go, and paints the actual person, you get a good portrait. The rest are just pretty paintings.
Still you may not agree and there is much to learn here in turns of superb technique and the use of colour. I though, didn’t like it.
William John Mackenzie
I am an artist with a specialism in landscapes and still life. My contact details are here.