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Artist: Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) has few peers in the history of art. Only a handful of painters have ever communicated their experience of the world with such intensity, originality and profundity. Cézanne is difficult and frustrating. But these are his strengths, and make him one of the few artists who can never be deadened by familiarity; it never gets any easier looking at Cézanne. His painting is thoughtful, but not cold, a hand-grenade of compacted emotion. He has much in common with Vincent van Gogh: both were isolated characters whose paintings of southern France are in tension between desire for the landscape and melancholy.
Cézanne's melancholy is ultimately inexplicable: there is a sense of alienation and loneliness in his painting. Looking at his still lifes, you sense that part of him wants to smash the apples off the table in rage but, instead, he makes them into mythic objects of reverence. His landscapes are achingly mysterious: dense, dry renderings of the toughness of stone, trees in planes of green behind which, in remote patches of light, something is waiting. Doom, anxiety and forbidden love throb in the warm air between us and Montagne Sainte-Victoire.
Subject: Cézanne painted his self-portrait repeatedly, favouring an unusual and evasive pose in which he stands half-sidelong, turning his head to us weakly. It is a pose that refuses the heroism of, say, a Rembrandt self-portrait, instead implying a hesitant, even resistant, self-scrutiny, like that of someone who does not like to see himself.
Distinguishing features: Cézanne's dome of a head, emerging from his remaining hair like a pared-down mathematical fact, almost a sphere (certainly containing the ghost of a sphere, of lost perfection), is oddly reminiscent of his still-life apples. It was the critic Roger Fry who first compared this self-portrait to a Cézanne apple. He has painted himself as objectively as a piece of fruit.
And yet what matters is the emotional, poetic resonance of Cézanne's self-objectification; it is an act of peculiar distance from one's self, and it is that sense of distance, of lack of understanding and even lack of empathy, that makes this such a powerful, enigmatic painting. The melancholia is in every diagonal, opaque mark, in the separated, firmly singular bricks of paint that alternately work in rhythm and, crucially, jar. Note the point above his right eyebrow where the narrow plates of paint shudderingly change direction, and a section of pink flesh stands proud as if the result of some violent surgery.
The spherical authority of the head disintegrates into these patches: the ruddy smears of colour on his cheeks, the cloudy grey-and-black curls of his hair and beard and, most of all, those insistent, yet never coldly scientific, rectangular marks. Painting is here made explicit and self-revealing and, in this revelation, the idea of ever being able to fully apprehend the world becomes a tragicomic absurdity. Cézanne's head, with its Egyptian lozenges for eyes, is to him both inexhaustible and baffling. We do not know the man in this painting any more than he knows himself.
Inspirations and influences: Every modern art movement was influenced by Cézanne. The recognition of the strangeness of selfhood fundamental to his painting marks a revolution in consciousness. As a document of modern thought, this portrait stands alongside Henri Bergson's Time and Free Will (1889) and Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams (1900).
Where is it? National Gallery, London WC2 (020-7747 2885).
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Antoine Dominique Sauveur Aubert (born 1817), the Artist's Uncle
Still Life with Jar, Cup, and Apples
Antoine Dominique Sauveur Aubert (born 1817), the Artist's Uncle, as a Monk
The Fishermen (Fantastic Scene)
Dish of Apples
Mont Sainte-Victoire and the Viaduct of the Arc River Valley
The Gulf of Marseilles Seen from L'Estaque
Still Life with Apples and a Pot of Primroses
The Card Players
Still Life with a Ginger Jar and Eggplants
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