The Economist’s Prospero blog on economist.com  had reviewed an exhibition of “Cézanne’s Card Players” at the Courtauld Gallery in London. I’m not particularly a Cézanne  fan, but I was enchanted by “A royal flush.”  The author writes, “This exhibition amounts to a total immersion in Cézanne’s vision”  –  she brought me along with her to the showing itself.

I’m still in the Hudson Valley (figuratively speaking) at the moment, but I’m taking a side trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibition shows there from Feb. 9th – May 11, and if I’m actually in the area, I just may go …

The Card Players 1890-1892, Paul Cézanne

A Royal Flush

… The “Card Players” series was clearly important to Cézanne, given the time he spent with it and the size of the works (the ones not included are among his largest paintings). Why? Answers remain speculative. One possibility was that Cézanne wanted to take a subject that had long attracted artists and make it his own. These are not the typical rowdy drunken gamblers and their wenches revelling in the tavern. These men are as still and solid as trees.

It is believed that the men modelled individually for Cézanne in his studio. (Perhaps all of them worked on the family estate, Jas de Bouffan, outside Aix-en-Provence.) The artist later produced the card-playing composition based on these studies, though the exact order in which he painted the pictures remains unclear.

This show repeatedly makes the point that monumentality was the subject of these works—the ageless, timeless solidity of peasants. Rare for Cézanne, these are genre paintings in which the subject is everyday life rather than the individuals who live it, or so it is said. And they are indeed monumental. But these paintings have an intimacy about them, too. I very quickly felt a connection with these men, such as the stoical, nothing-will-budge-him Père Alexandre, with his rich blue smoke and bright red neckerchief.

The Smoker, 1895 (oil on canvas) by Paul Cézanne

I developed a soft spot for the insouciant gardener Paulin Paulet and his wide brow, drooping moustache and nonchalantly turned-up hat brim. Paulet appears in all the “Card Player” paintings, even those with only two figures. (The Met’s has four; the one at the Barnes—the largest of the series—has five, including a child looking on, said to be Léontine, Paulet’s daughter. This composition seems to support the idea that Cézanne fabricated the scene from sketches, as little Léontine is featured in the unlikely position of not watching Daddy’s cards, but those of a different player.)

Paulet is also the subject of three other paintings in the show. In the background of one of them, “The Smoker” (c.1890-92), are three unframed paintings by Cézanne. The effect is optically playful, as the apples and bottles just behind Paulet look as if they are resting on a shelf; that they are “real” and not in a painting within a painting. But they are real, of course, as real as the labourers and the cards, the table and the pipes. They are equal participants in Cézanne’s world.

This exhibition amounts to a total immersion in Cézanne’s vision. The paintings hanging on the wall no longer look like “art”—that is, something alien to the viewer, however beautiful or marvellous or thought-provoking. With their short brush-strokes and seemingly broken-up surfaces, they are more radical than the drawings. They perform a remarkable transformation: our way of seeing becomes replaced by Cézanne’s, and, just as remarkably this feels perfectly natural.

That doesn’t often happen at exhibitions. It is thrilling that it occurs here.

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