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Frances Spalding

Upsetting the Apple Cart

The Letters of Paul Cézanne
Edited and translated by Alex Danchev (Thames & Hudson 392pp 29.95)
Sketches and caricatures on a letter to Zola,
29 July 1859

This might be a book of Paul Cézanne's letters, but the various self-portraits and photographs of the painter dropped into the text are no less revealing than his writings. Take, for instance, the photograph of him setting out to paint in the landscape near Auvers, around 1874. He stands mid-stride, resting on his stick, with painting box and folded easel on his back. Those gimlet eyes, beneath his straw hat, and the thick beard that obscures the lower part of his face immediately convey character and purpose. This is no Sunday painter but a man ferociously committed to the task in hand. 'Pictor semper virens', he added after his name in a letter to Marius Roux, the author of The Substance and the Shadow, a novel in which a character based on Cézanne ends his days a ruined man. The professional signature acted as a riposte: unlike his fictional alter ego he, the pictor ('painter'), was semper virens ('evergreen') - in other words, vigorously alive.

Cézanne is a complex figure of towering importance in the history of art. As a person, he has, until now, been difficult to comprehend - as Lawrence Gowing once said, his writings deserve the close scrutiny and analysis normally reserved for classic texts. Those who have turned to the first English translation of his letters (published in 1941, revised and enlarged in 1976 and printed in paperback in 1995) may recollect the disappointment aroused by the stiff and awkward phrasing and the sense, in places, that the words remain dead on the page. But if its editor, John Rewald, a foundational scholar on Cézanne and the Impressionists, was in places ill-served by his translator, he nevertheless deserves praise for the herculean labour involved in finding Cézanne's letters, for the artist neither kept copies of the letters he wrote nor preserved the letters he received, other than those from Zola. In 1976 there were 231 letters by Cézanne in the public domain. Alex Danchev has raised this number to 252. He has also edited and retranslated these letters, ridding them of faults made in earlier transcriptions and translations. It is still a frustratingly small collection, but a more vivid and authentic voice now comes through.

Following the success of Danchev's biography of Cézanne in 2012, it might be thought that these letters are merely a timely addendum. That would be to underestimate the importance of this new book. As Danchev points out in his introduction, not only are the earlier translations riddled with textual errors and inaccuracies, but they also fail in relation to nuance, wordplay and emphasis, and they undermine Cézanne's fizz. The cumulative effect of small errors has coarsened our view of the artist; and art historians and biographers with a leaning towards psychoanalytical interpretations have had a field day with this conflicted individual, who was initially obliged by his father to study law, revered his mother and for many years hid from his parents the fact of his union with Hortense Fiquet and the existence of his son. There are problems here without any doubt but, as we now learn, many instances of the psychological and psychosexual readings of his life and work rest partly on mistranslation and misappropriation. The cause of the latter was chiefly Zola's use of Cézanne for the character Claude Lantier in the novel L'Œuvre.

Lantier's failings - notably his phobias regarding society and women - have been grafted on to Cézanne. It is good to be reminded, by a handful of Zola's letters included in this book, of the more normal, less pathological Cézanne and of the qualities that the author most admired in his friend: 'I saw in you a great goodness of heart, a great imagination, the two foremost qualities before which I bow.' When Cézanne apologises for the boredom of his letters, Zola expostulates, 'that is the height of bad taste ... I'd rather stop drinking and smoking than corresponding with you.'

As the letters proceed, the reader is drawn again into the central drama of Cézanne's life: his tenacious pursuit of his ideas about painting. Even his slight sketches have a remarkable hold on our attention and convey a sense, not of realism, which Zola advised him to abjure, but of the real. He was afflicted with hesitations and uncertainty, and required much persuasion from Zola before he left Aix for Paris. Once there he immediately wanted to return, but stayed five months. It took another year at home before he returned to Paris, in 1862, this time staying for almost two years. Back with his family in 1866, he wrote to Camille Pissarro, 'I'm here in the bosom of my family, with the foulest people on earth, those who make up family, excruciatingly annoying.' No wonder he began to insist on his need to be elsewhere. No wonder that Zola complained, 'Convincing Cézanne of something is like persuading the towers of Notre Dame to execute a quadrille.'

He was becoming a thinker-painter. In November 1874, now part of the Impressionist circle, he wrote to his mother:

I am beginning to consider myself stronger than all those around me, and you know that I hold that good opinion advisedly. I have to work all the time, but not to achieve the finish that earns the admiration of imbeciles. And that thing that is so widely valued is nothing more than a workman's craft, and makes all the resulting work inartistic and common. I must strive for completion purely for the satisfaction of becoming truer and wiser.

He read widely and retained all his life a huge admiration for Baudelaire. His famous remark - that he wanted to make of Impressionism something solid and enduring like the art of museums - was best pursued in the Midi. There he might spend three or four months on a motif. And so he returned to Aix, to Mont Sainte-Victoire, and also painted at nearby L'Estaque. To Pissarro he explained that 'the vegetation doesn't change here. There are the olive trees and pines that always keep their leaves.'

One of these letters belonged to Picasso and was kept by him as a kind of talisman. It was he who supplied the touchstone word that is at the heart of Cézanne's great endeavour:

inquiétude, that is Cézanne's lesson ... that is to say, the drama of the man. The rest is false.

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Frances Spalding's latest book, Prunella Clough: regions unmapped, is published by Lund Humphries.

Royal Literary Fund

John Murray