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January 19 2011

Paul Cézanne at 172: still life and landscapes run deep

Google's Paul Cézanne tribute is deserved. He painted with his mind in works of beauty and stillness that simmer with emotion

Google is standing up for high art. Today's Google doodle transforms the familiar logo into a painting by Paul Cézanne, the most serious and profound of French 19th-century painters, who happens to be 172 years old today. Good for him, and good for Google for paying homage to one of art's true heroes.

The search engine is not the first to pay fulsome tribute to Cézanne. The greatest artist of the 20th century, Picasso, acknowledged how much he owed to this painter of flinty landscapes, dazzling still life arrangements, and taciturn portraits. How can a painter of such still and rustic beauties be central to the story of modern art, as Picasso insisted he was? Because Cézanne stared so intensely at nature he began to take it apart in his mind, to anatomise it, theorise it, on long hot afternoons in his studio in Aix-en-Provence and then reassemble the elements of reality in paintings that are pixellated constellations of insights, recognitions, memories and flashes of desire or rage. Cézanne said of his contemporary Monet that he was only an eye (but what an eye, he conceded). The implied contrast is that where Monet was a mere eye reflecting nature, Cézanne paints with his mind and his psyche. Instead of seeing through his art we see his art itself. In its feints, leaps of intuition, and surrenders – an element of the unfinished is crucial to his later work, and it was through Cézanne that people learned to cherish earlier unfinished masterpieces like Michelangelo's Prisoners – we encounter the difficult, complex, and irrational processes of his mind making sense of the world it finds itself in.

Not that Cézanne is some cold, philosophical artist. His problem was not a lack of feeling but an excess of it. The son of a wealthy Provençal banker, and a school friend of the future novelist Zola, he set out to become an artist in Paris but found it very hard going: his early works, ignored or mocked by contemporaries, dwell on dark themes of violence and angry male sexuality. Zola portrays his friend, barely disguised, in his novel The Masterpiece as a figure of avant garde madness and abject failure. It was a kind of miracle – helped by inherited wealth – that the troubled Cézanne was able to conquer his demons by standing out in the southern sun, painting a mountain, or dwelling in suspended desire on the roundness of fruits in a bowl.

Beauty, stillness – but no calm. The fascination of Cézanne lies in the overwhelming emotion that threatens to explode at any second from the white rocks of a hillside, the steely imperturbability of a peasant's face. He is the first modernist and, as Picasso knew, the most liberating. An eye, and so much more. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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