City of Light Chronicles the Brightening of Cezanne's Palette

Major Paris retrospective shows evolution of his paintings from dark to airy and vibrant

APPLES are "in" in Paris, and you have Paul Cezanne to thank.

A Left-Bank flower shop displays apples on a table in its window, a careful imitation of a Cezanne still life, but the effect doesn't quite work. Cezanne's painted apples seem more alive than the real ones.

Christian Dior boutiques are selling gold-plated apple earrings, designed to accompany the Grand Palais Cezanne retrospective, which opened Sept. 30 and will be on display in Paris until Jan. 7, 1996.

Some 50 books or new editions have already been announced to mark the first major Cezanne retrospective since 1936. Paris newspapers and magazines geared up for Cezanne for weeks with cover treatments and pages of color inserts.

The conservative daily "Figaro" provides a pull-out lesson on perspective to explain to readers why Cezanne's still-lifes look better than real life. (Art critics in Cezanne's day did the same exercise, concluding that the artist was a "failed" painter for violating laws of perspective.)

In addition to the earrings, Cezanne-souvenir hunters can pick up $25 apple cups, a $70 exhibition catalog, prints, postcards, stationary, children's books, CD-ROMs, video cassettes, dish cloths, even a new line of pottery "inspired" by Cezanne still lifes at the Grand Palais sales room. For $86, you can buy a plate with a blue border by ceramic artist Claire de Lavallee, like one you just saw in a painting.

Add a couple zeros to the plate's price, and you can own a dress from Christian Dior's winter haute-couture collection patterned after Cezanne's Harlequin portrait.

But set aside the hype, the waiting lines, and the frenzy around the cash register, and the stars of this exhibit are still the original works.

There are 109 paintings in this retrospective, along with 68 watercolors and drawings. Cezanne produced more than 800 works in a career that spanned 44 years, from 1862 to 1906.

Paris can be an unforgiving city for a young artist. Well after Cezanne's lifetime, the city's directories of artists still cited the artist's teacher and credentials. Here, the right school and the right teacher can weigh more heavily than vision or talent. To critics in Cezanne's day, he was a "failed" and "incomplete artist."

Rejected by Paris's leading art school, its galleries, and its leading art critics, the Provence-born artist pioneered his own style - and never seemed satisfied with it.

When asked by gallery owner Ambroise Vollard why he had left two small spots of unpainted canvas on a portrait, Cezanne is said to have replied: "Perhaps tomorrow I may find the right tone to fill in those spaces.... If I just put something there haphazardly, I would later have to rework the whole painting, starting from that spot."

"I am making progress," he wrote to Vollard in 1903. "But why so slowly and painfully?"

The great pleasure of this exhibit is watching the artist's expression develop. These paintings evolve from dark, dramatic early works to open-air subjects, brighter palettes, and measured strokes. Important themes, such as the bathers or the landscapes of Mont Saint-Victoire, are grouped together.

Cezanne produced more than 250 works on the theme of bathers, 17 of which are represented in this exhibition.

Painter Henri Matisse donated a Cezanne painting of three bathers to the museum in 1939 with a note: "For the 37 years that I owned this painting, I came to know it fairly well, but not completely, I hope. It morally sustained me during the critical moments of my adventure as an artist." He asks the museum to give it the light and the space needed for other artists to appreciate it as well.

The museum has kept its word. These exhibit halls are full of light and air. Even in crowds, it is possible to study these paintings, and even to feel alone with them.

There is a logic of design to these works that rewards close study. Much of what came to be viewed as modern art finds its roots in the patient brush strokes, the order of cones, spheres, and cylinders in these still lifes.

The French term for still life, "nature morte," never seemed more inappropriate than applied to Cezanne's work. There is nothing dead about them. Even a series of still lifes featuring pyramids of skulls exudes vitality.

For many who visit this retrospective, Cezanne's watercolors come as a surprise. For a painter who labors over each brushstroke, watercolor is a quick medium that permits no second thoughts. Cezanne seems in his element here. His watercolor curtains seem to radiate color, even though the work itself uses color sparingly.

By the end of his life, Cezanne was only beginning to find the professional recognition that eluded him through most of his life. If adulation can compensate for a life of artistic labor, Paris is now paying back its debt.

*After Paris, the exhibition moves to the Tate Gallery in London (Feb. 7-April 18, 1996) and to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (May 25-Aug. 18).

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