Arts Aloud Review: Taking Cézanne Portraits at face value

Almost a year to the day since we braved the half term chaos to enjoy the opening days of Picasso Portraits, we found ourselves battling the crowds again at the National Portrait Gallery, keen to explore one of the most eagerly awaited exhibitions of the year.

Cézanne Portraits brings together for the first time, over fifty of the artist’s portraits from collections all over the world, celebrating some of his most iconic pieces and uncovering a number of works seen for the very first time on British soil.

I’ve long carried affection for this ‘father’ of the Post-Impressionist era, but admittedly my exposure has been limited to reoccurring images of his landscape Mont Sainte-Victoire, or his fruity still life arrangements. A somewhat underwhelming introduction for my companions perhaps, but with thousands of paintings produced throughout his life, under 200 of which were portraits, we could at least agree that what we were about to see was very special, and more importantly, new for us all.

Armed with sketchbooks and a spectrum of coloured pencils to pay homage to his bold colours, the girls were excited to be back in this magnificent gallery and couldn’t wait to start exploring. Sadly, the position of Room 1 smack bang in front of the main entrance, created an unpleasant bottleneck from the outset, rendering The Artist’s Father, Reading “L”Evénement and Self Portrait c.1862-4 almost impossible to view, and failing to provide the introduction that both the artist and these eager young viewers deserved.

By the third room, space began to level out, with the man himself replaced by evolving portraits of his Uncle Dominique, providing the perfect cue to plot down and pay closer attention. We really enjoyed the imperfections of work in this room, with so many of the pieces feeling like a test run for the larger work. His distinctive manière couillarde style, also caught us by surprise. Scared to represent his heavy-handed use of paint with their meagre art pencils, the children instead used adjectives to describe his expression, appearing to have sat so long, yet left with so many details seemingly incomplete. Impatient, bored, dull, fidgety.

Lessons in conserving canvas was another highlight for this room, where Cézanne’s sister and mother are displayed back to back, resulting in his poor mum being viewed upside down on her debut in London. We had to giggle.

As we journeyed through his life and his work, the boldness of his palette knife and the non compliance of his sitters, seemed to continue in earnest, with Madame Cézanne capturing even more of their imagination by Room 7.

Without the urgency to clamber over other visitors in order to spy the iconic set of self portraits, or the famous Man with Pipe, they instead flocked to the fabulous skirt of Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair, hair in bun, lips pursed, hands folded and unresolved. One of twenty-nine completed portraits of his wife, Hortense Fiquet, the children surmised that she must have sat for so many pictures, she didn’t even bother to look up for Madame Cézanne Sewing. Her narrow eyes in one piece made me think they had a point.

With lengthy wall panels to digest and growing crowds, the atmosphere began to move from enjoyment to intensity, with attention starting to wane. We had just enough time for a quick mid-gallery loo stop (handy) and to marvel at the angel-like translucency that the artist had gifted his son’s skin in The Artist’s Son. It was interesting to see how his touch became more gentle and colours had become lighter, almost watercolour, as he faded into his later years.

As we escaped into the fresh air and freedom of London’s west end, heading onto St. James’ Park, we had no regrets about making the visit. We might not have had the energy or endurance to complete every room, or enjoy the additional children’s activities on the first floor, but we felt that we had made the right choice in focusing on the main show. We were grateful to the gallery attendants for batting away the few ‘old guard’ objections that came from us sitting and sketching, but what was really missing was a guide of some description to bring Cézanne’s form, friendships and focus to life, to wade us through the jargon and smooth our passage.

From unknown entity to surprise hit, it was testament to this magnificent body of work that we took away so much discussion around what we had seen. With so little to go on before, during and after we left, all we could do was take each room, each piece and each detail at face value. Surely the best way to tackle any world-class collection of portraits, don’t you think?

Cezanne Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery until 11 February 2018
St. Martin’s Place, London WC2H 0HE
Opening hours: Sat to Weds 10am-6pm, Thurs and Fri 10am-9pm
Admission Adults £20 (including donation), Children under 12 free, concessions available