BY Chloë Ashby in Opinion | 30 SEP 22

Reappraising Cézanne’s Unfinished Strokes of Genius

Ahead of Tate Modern’s first major show on the French artist in 70 years, what can we learn from an incomplete work of art?

BY Chloë Ashby in Opinion | 30 SEP 22

On a tabletop is a round water jug, an ochre highlight on its belly. A plain cloth has been thrown over the table, white on wood. There’s a shallow plate and on it half a dozen apples, huddled like eggs in a nest. Other pieces of fruit sit in overlapping pairs among the folds of ruched fabric. There appears to be a knife, maybe a hunk of bread.

Still Life with Water Jug (1892–93) is one of a series of similar still-life paintings that will feature in Tate Modern’s career-spanning survey of Paul Cézanne, opening this October. What sets it apart is that the artist abandoned it mid-formation. ‘No one but Cézanne would usually see this stage of his painting,’ says Annette King, paintings conservator at Tate, who has been studying the fragmentary canvas together with Elisabeth Reissner, a lecturer in conservation and technology at London’s Courtauld Institute of Art, and the exhibition curator Natalia Sidlina. ‘It provides real insight into how he would realize his vision.’

Paul Cezanne, Still Life with Water Jug, 1892
Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Water Jug, 1892. Courtesy: Tate Modern, London

We’re chatting in the conservation studio at Tate Britain, watched over by a gaggle of Andy Warhol’s monochrome and brightly coloured Marilyns (1962). On a table, out of its frame, is the incomplete still life. A line has been scored vertically down the right-hand side. When the artist was unhappy with a work and wanted to discard it, as was often the case, he would take a knife to it.

There’s something tantalising about unfinished art, like a backstage pass. Also, something intimate, the incomplete lines and patches of bare canvas inviting us to collaborate and imagine. Such works throw up the question of value. After being cast aside by the artist, Still Life with Water Jug was purchased for 75 francs by his dealer, Ambroise Vollard, who decided it was worth keeping and had it restored. It then entered the collection of Dutch businessman C. Frank Stoop, who bequeathed it to Tate in 1933. Today, it’s prized as a teaching tool, the early brushmarks laying bare Cézanne’s creative process.

Portrait of Paul Cezanne with a pink background, 1875
Paul Cézanne, Portrait of the Artist with Pink Background, 1875. Courtesy: Tate Modern, London; photograph: RMN-Grand Palais

‘He’s playing around with where to put things, rubbing out here and scrubbing out with white there,’ says King. ‘He’s also establishing colour relationships across the canvas.’ The earth hues of the wood crop up in a couple of apples, evenly spread across the mid-section; there’s the saturated blue, used to re-establish the original diluted-paint drawing, and the complementary use of red and green. He added a thin blue wash over the creamy ground to dull the luminosity and gradually intensified the colours to model forms. As the French poet and art critic Joachim Gasquet recalled many years after the artist’s death, in his 1921 biography Cézanne, his realization of a painting would start out loose and open before becoming tightly interlocked, like a slow coming together of hands.

Only Cézanne could know why he abandoned one work and continued with another, but we can hazard a guess. He liked to keep his paint light and the ground clean, so perhaps he took the jug too far and it threw him off balance. In similar finished compositions, such as Curtain, Pitcher and a Fruit Bowl (1893–94), the jug is twisted, its handle at the side; in Still Life with Water Jug, it’s at the back and strongly foreshortened. Perhaps he struggled or wasn’t satisfied? Doing away with conventional perspective, the artist placed the tabletop parallel to the picture plane and tilted it towards the viewer; densely built up on the far side, it’s as if the weighty jug is preventing the other items from falling at our feet. ‘He wasn’t preoccupied with copying what he observed,’ says Reissner, when we speak over the phone a week later, ‘but with representing how he experienced space. With giving the impression that, if we fancied an apple, we could reach out and take it.’

Paul Cezanne, Curtain, Pitcher and a Fruit Bowl (1892 - 94) on display at the Art Institute of
Paul Cézanne, Curtain, Pitcher and a Fruit Bowl, 1893–94. Courtesy: Art Institute of Chicago via Wikimedia

At Tate Modern, Still Life with Water Jug will be part of a collection of paintings, watercolours and drawings – 22 of which have never previously been displayed in the UK – that span Cézanne’s career. An x-ray of the unfinished work will also be on view, making visible a wobbly line that, beneath the surface, stretches across the lump of bread and two pieces of fruit. ‘It speaks to him not being interested in drawing a circle for an apple,’ says King. ‘Instead, he was interested in the cadence of the objects.’ Something similar happens with the horizon line, which isn’t level on either side of the jug. Here is a snapshot of Cézanne considering the objects he saw and how he wished to present them. ‘He didn’t want to tidy up the experience of looking,’ says Reissner. ‘Instead, he wanted to find a pictorial equivalent for it.’ One that’s rough and real, much like his still life, unfinished, everlasting.

'The EY Exhibition: Cezanne' is on view at Tate Modern, London from 6 October 2022 until 12 March 2023.

Main image: Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Water Jug, 1892. Courtesy: Tate Modern, London

Chloë Ashby is an author and arts critic who has written for publications such as The Times, TLS, Guardian, Spectator and frieze. Her debut novel, Wet Paint, was published in April 2022, and her second novel, Second Self, is due in July 2023.