Cezanne’s famous apples line Art Gallery of Hamilton walls

Once dismissed as "crazy" and "ham-handed", French painter Paul Cezanne is now widely regarded as one of world's most famous artists. This weekend, 18 of his paintings go on display at the Art Gallery of Hamilton.
Art Gallery of Hamilton staff hang a Paul Cezanne still life, one of 18 of the French master's paintings on display as part of a new exhibit. (John Rieti/CBC)

Once dismissed as "crazy" and "ham-handed", French painter Paul Cezanne is now widely regarded as one of world's most famous artists. This weekend, 18 of his paintings go on display at the Art Gallery of Hamilton.

Cezanne's masterful brushstrokes, which later inspired the likes of Matisse and Picasso, go on display this Saturday in the AGH show The World is An Apple: The Still Lifes of Paul Cezanne.

AGH curator Benedict Leca organized the show, which premiered at Philadelphia’s prestigious Barnes Foundation this past June. The exhibit marks just the second time these works loaned from international galleries and collectors, dating from the mid- to late-1800s and worth an undisclosed but enormous sum of money have hung in the same room. 

Critics said 'This guy’s crazy. He’s clearly deranged. Call the police, we’ve got a psycho on our hands.- Benedict Leca, AGH curator

Today, the paintings in gilded frames are must-haves for the world’s top art museums and line the pages of art history texts. But, Leca said, it’s important to remember these were “radical paintings” when Cezanne first showed them in major venues in Paris.

"Critics said 'This guy’s crazy. He’s clearly deranged. Call the police, we’ve got a psycho on our hands'," Leca said.

Obviously, Leca — who has studied Cezanne (1839-1906) extensively — disagrees.

"This is like poetry," he said, as he excitedly criss-crossed the room from one painting to another.

"He’s making imaginative leaps and he wants you to join him."

So, how do you do that? How do you get the most out of going to this exhibit? Leca has a few suggestions.

Look at every mark

Cezanne is "the ultimate painter’s painter," Leca said, and he leaves plenty of hints about how he does his work. While some paintings may appear unfinished at the edges, they're absolutely not. It's a clue, Leca said, to look closer.

"It’s essentially a self-portrait. It draws attention to his painting. His technique."

It’s more than an apple

AGH curator Benedict Leca, the exhibit's organizer, said pay close attention to paintings that appear unfinished at parts, as they are the painter showing you how his work is done. (John Rieti/CBC)
As the exhibit’s title suggests, the humble apple is the star of the show, with some skulls and flowers on display, too. But Cezanne isn’t just painting the objects, he’s also crafting abstract landscapes within his still life paintings, and playing with colours and shapes.

“He’s operating on so many different levels,” Leca said.

“This guy authorizes imaginative leaps. He does all sorts of crazy stuff.”

Leca recommends looking closely at how Cezanne builds up his oil paintings — particularly of interest are where objects meet the atmosphere around them — and let your imagination run wild from there.

Break the rules

When Cezanne, who lived and worked in Aix-en-Provence, showed his work in Paris he wanted it to be a "stick in the eye" of the city’s critics, Leca said.

Compare his works to some other paintings from the time (a few are placed on an adjacent wall to make it easy) and see the painter’s rebellious streak.

A sketched self-portrait by Cezanne welcomes visitors to the exhibit. (John Rieti/CBC)

While it's not essential to enjoying the show, it is fun to think that some of the painter’s most scorned work of the time sells for tens of millions of dollars today. His painting The Card Players was bought by Qatar’s royal family in 2011 for an undisclosed sum believed to be well over $250 million, making it the most expensive painting ever sold at auction.  

Leca didn’t get into specifics, but said some high-tech security will be in place during the exhibition. He said he's hoping more than 50,000 people will visit the show during its run at the AGH.  

"This is one of the most famous Cezannes in the world," Leca gushed, as he stared toward one of the painter's uniquely rendered skulls. Then, almost to himself, "I can’t believe they loaned it to me."

The show goes until Feb. 8, 2015 and admission is $10. That also gets you into the rest of the AGH’s exhibits, including another new exhibition featuring the work of several prominent local artists.

For those craving more information about Cezanne’s work, a detailed catalogue written by Leca is also available.


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