The Courtauld Gallery has recently been showing a series of small specialist exhibitions of artists work that have included Sickert’s Camden Town Nudes, Michelangelo’s Drawings and Frank Auerbach’s London Building Sites. It is now the turn of Cezanne’s Card Players, and, on display alongside the Courtauld’s own acquisitions, are a number of studies and related works on loan from Galleries around the world, creating a small, informative and delightful show.
The subject matter of Card Players was one which occupied Cezanne in the 1890’s. For models he used the workers on his estate, drawing and painting them separately before attempted to fit them into the larger compositions that can be seen in the Barnes Collection (not on display) and in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as well as the two Card Player versions in the Courtauld and the Musee d’Orsay, Paris.
What is evident in this exhibition are the painstaking attempts he made at drawing and painting his models before awkwardly trying to fit them into ambitious compositions. Artists tend not to show their preparatory work or the processes that go into creating the finished picture but this exhibition does so, with a sense of humour. Viewers will be intrigued by the artist’s many attempts at getting a pipe to fit into a mouth. They will wonder at the strange elongated arms and the hats that don’t fit properly onto heads and legs that don’t seem to have any relationship to the rest of the body. The working processes and the artist’s deliberations have been laid bare for all to see.
Cezanne, who has long been considered the father of Modern Art , was not an artist blessed with the type of easy facility that could be found among the Academic Artists of the period and as he himself said ‘I couldn’t get things in proportion’. When the French writer Zola, his boyhood friend published the novel L’oeuvre, in which Cezanne is portrayed as Claude Lantier a failed and incompetent painter, Cezanne takes offence and breaks off all communications. So why is he such a great painter and can we see it in this exhibition?
It is Cezanne’s painstaking approach to building up a painted surface, to analyse and represent what he sees in a structural and seemingly monumental way, to ‘redo Poussin again after Nature’ that is his strength. The peasants depicted in this show are stoic, placid figures patiently posing for their employer and being paid for their trouble.
Cezanne is at his best when he is at his most abstract in landscapes and in portraits which are devoid of anecdote or sentiment. He developed a way of painting that emphasised structure, colour and identity in his paintings and in favouring form over representation, pointed the way towards the development of cubism. Picasso described him as ‘the Father of us all’ and in this exhibition you can see examples of powerfully realised figures such as the Peasant c 1890-92, the Man in a Blue Smock c1892-97 and the Card Player c1890-92.
However the one picture that is regrettably missing from the show is the large oil on canvas The Card Players c 1892-96 which shows a more fully realised version of the two card players and it is arguably this painting and not the Barnes or Metropolitan pictures that is the culmination of all those studies and variations that make this such an interesting and illuminating show. Do try to get to it. It is only running until January 16th though, so time is running out. Here are the media ratings for the show:
“A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” The Guardian
“The Courtauld at its very best … truly remarkable.” The Times
“The winning hand of a great master… To say that the whole is stunning is an understatement …” The Independent
Critic’s Choice Time Out