Why to see the ‘artist’s artist’

The most poignant detail of “Cezanne,” a co-exhibit between the Art Institute and London’s Tate Modern, is also one of its tiniest. If you’ve seen Paul Cezanne’s works on display before, you’ve probably seen him attributed as Paul Cézanne, with an accent on that first syllable.

But that’s not how Cezanne signed his own name. He went sans accent, as his name would have been written in his native Aix-en-Provence. The accent was a Parisian imposition, a convention less consented to than forced upon Cezanne to fit dialectical norms.

“Cezanne” drops that accent in this retrospective, the first in the U.S. in some 25 years and first at the Art Institute in more than 70. The corrective is subtle, but a whole world of baggage hangs off that tiny slip of the pen. During his lifetime, Cezanne zigzagged between Paris and Provence — never quite at home in either, but also never bothering to make himself at home.

The tug of war between the urban and provincial was one of many in Cezanne’s life. He was a 20th-century artist straining against the strictures of the 19th, embraced by neither the traditional École des Beaux-Arts nor the then-radical Impressionists. But contemporaries like Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas and Paul Gauguin recognized his brilliance when few others did, avidly enshrining Cezanne’s reputation as an “artist’s artist.”

So it has remained. “Cezanne” invites 10 living artists to discuss the French master’s influence, each selecting a work to analyze from the 80 oil paintings, 40 watercolors and drawings, and two sketchbooks on display. Visitors can read Kerry James Marshall geek out about the use of perspective in “Madame Cezanne in a Yellow Chair,” or Phyllida Barlow’s wistful recollections of seeing “Mont Sainte-Victoire” as an art student in the 1960s. Chicago artist Julia Fish goes more personal still, penning an ode to Cezanne’s still life “The Three Skulls.”

“The most important audience for Cezanne’s work during his lifetime, unquestionably, was fellow artists. That’s the spirit we’re carrying forward in the exhibit,” says Caitlin Haskell, modern and contemporary art curator at the Art Institute.

Where some retrospectives feel like hagiography, “Cezanne” is as rough around the edges as its subject. The exhibit flows non-chronologically, instead grouping the Art Institute and Tate’s collection by themes, genre or locale. Viewers begin with Cezanne’s early landscapes, for which the artist was already bucking convention by painting dense, brambly woods with the same attention as photogenic vistas. It progresses through figure works, a tucked-away pocket on his brush stroke style and an expansive section on still lifes.

“We really wanted to show Cezanne in the present tense. The spacing of the work, the wall color … it’s all very artwork-forward, presenting him in the same way that we would a 20th- or 21st-century painter,” Haskell says. “We want his paintings to work on you as a visitor and not really mediate them so much with design.”

The final room is reserved for a collection of Cezanne’s famous paintings of bathers, coalescing in an installment from his epic “Les Grandes Baigneuses” (The Large Bathers) series. But it’s only the largest canvas in the exhibit by a tiny margin. A close second is a nearly life-size portrait of Cezanne’s father reading a newspaper, a nod to the long shadow Louis-Auguste Cezanne would cast over his son’s life. A partner in a successful bank, Louis-Auguste was wealthy enough to provide financial cover for his son when he needed it, which was often.

That’s not to say he did so happily. Louis-Auguste wanted his son to be a lawyer, a disappointment from which he never fully recovered. In his 1866 portrait, Louis-Auguste’s expression is quintessentially opaque — for Cezanne, the body would forever hold more expressive potential than the face — but a scowl is clearly rendered. He is depicted with his back turned on one of his son’s still lifes from the period, “Sugar Bowl, Pears, and Blue Cup.”

“I’m sure Cezanne could never please his father. The fact that he keeps his marriage and his own child a secret from his father shows that it was not a normal relationship. But as domestic as that portrait is, with his little nightcap and clogs and everything, he is enthroned,” says Gloria Groom, the Art Institute’s European painting and sculpture chair and co-curator of the exhibit.

Tension aside, Groom notes that Cezanne’s inherited wealth freed him to beaver away at the art that interested him, even if it meant painting for “an audience of one.” Cezanne scarcely signed and dated his pieces, signaling he wasn’t much concerned about finding a paying public.

That lack of documentation has been a headache for art historians, but it’s profoundly informed the Art Institute and Tate’s nonlinear presentation — and, of course, that accentless “e.” “Cezanne” presents these complications but doesn’t pretend to plot a path through them. Like the thicket of woods welcoming visitors at the exhibit’s mouth, it’s up to you to wind your own way.

It’s what Cezanne did, after all.

“Cezanne” is on display to Sept. 5 at Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Ave.; call 312-443-3600 or visit artic.edu/visit for hours, admission rates and more information.