I don’t know where you stand on Cézanne, but I have usually found him to be difficult and ungraspable. He’s one of those undoubted heroes of art whom I respect wholeheartedly, but whom I wouldn’t necessarily cross the room to look at. Knowing he’s there is usually enough. What’s worse, the B-word often begins muscling its way into my consciousness when I am confronted by large amounts of him. I live in a fast-cut world. Cézanne’s art seems to take place in the slowest of slo-mos. I like things to be happening. He, it seems, didn’t.
Occasionally, however, the gods of art take pity on me and shine their great big light of illumination on Cézanne. Stick me in front of him in the right setting and I get him: not in that agitated and ecstatic way you usually find with flashes of revelation, but slowly, relentlessly, immovably, in the manner of a good marriage turning into a great one, or a bottle of vintage Krug transporting you to grapey heaven in tiny sips.
The ecstasy swells gently into unstoppability. And the dutiful knowledge you came in with – that Cézanne was a very important figure in the history of modern art – turns into a grotesque underestimate that needs laughing at. This man was as great a revolutionary as there has ever been in art. He changed everything. It’s as plain as day.
Something of that order happened to me at the Courtauld Institute, where a perfect little Cézanne exhibition has been modestly arranged for us in the upstairs exhibition gallery, a tiny room that takes up about a millionth of the volume occupied by the foyer of Tate Modern, that totally amazing cavern of emptiness that everyone loves, with the, er, totally amazing sloping floor. At the Courtauld, I think I was the youngest person in the room. And the only one without grey hair. And, as we lucky oldies circled this tiny hot spot of art, getting closer and closer to Cézanne, floating higher and higher on the helium of art love, we created a rising tornado of appreciation that I imagine must have been visible from wherever it is that you live.
The Courtauld is fortunate to own the largest collection of Cézannes in Britain. This is because the gallery’s founder, the remarkably generous Samuel Courtauld, textile magnate-turned- Cézanne-worshipper, came across a Cézanne landscape in 1922 that had been rejected – predictably – by the Tate Gallery for an exhibition of “Modern Foreign Art” and had gone on show instead at the Burlington Fine Arts Club, where Courtauld saw it and experienced something like the ecstatic reaction described above. Cézanne got his claws into Courtauld. And never let go.
Courtauld duly went on a Cézanne buying spree. And now, for the first time, the entire collection of drawings, prints and letters he bought, as well as his superb selection of paintings, have been put on show at once. The resulting event has the personal air about it of a fan’s handiwork. If Cézanne’s toenail clippings had come up for sale, Courtauld, you feel, would have acquired them.
Because it was put together by a fan, rather than an art historian or a curator, the display does not unfold along the walls in the usual predictable manner favoured by art professionals, step by step. It seems to come at you in a bit of a jumble, all at once, just like a Cézanne painting. Here, there are oils. There, there are watercolours. In the middle, there are letters.