Cézanne: A Life by Alex Danchev

Hilary Spurling in The Telegraph:

ScreenHunter_45 Nov. 22 22.53When the young John Maynard Keynes bought a tiny painting of apples by Paul Cézanne at the Degas collection sale in Paris 1918, his friend the art critic Roger Fry was outraged. “He was like a bee on a sunflower,” wrote Virginia Woolf. Keynes had bought for himself what the National Gallery’s director refused to spend a penny of public funds on. That tiny painting became the first Cézanne in any British private collection. Fry was not amused. “Roger nearly lost his senses,” wrote Woolf.

Outrage was for years the default reaction to Cézanne’s clashing colours, coarse brush strokes, and a construction so ugly that “he could paint bad breath”, according to a critic in 1907. Rilke said you had to go on looking: “For a long time nothing, and suddenly one has the right eyes.” It was the evenness of Cézanne’s vision as much as its intentness – his rejection of conventional hierarchies of subject and style – that shook both factions, for and against. Rilke saw in Cézanne’s self-portraits “the unquestioning, matter-of-fact interest of a dog who sees himself in a mirror and thinks: there’s another dog”. Or, as Heidegger put it: “If only one could think as directly as Cézanne painted.”

It would be virtually impossible for anyone now to get back behind the wrong eyes, and the great strength of Alex Danchev’s book is that it doesn’t try. This is a biography for an age that takes Cézanne’s supreme clarity, balance and pictorial logic for granted.

More here.