Caalors, is that really Paul Cezanne? The Post-Impressionist painter stands next to the Fontaine de la Rotonde with his hat and walking stick, easel strapped to his back.
Somehow, the life-size bronze statue of Aix-en-Provence’s favorite son looks surprised at the attention it attracts.
Next month, Cezanne is coming to London’s Tate Modern in a once-in-a-generation, career-spanning retrospective of his life and work. I made the reverse journey. In Cezanne’s sun-drenched, easy-going hometown in the south of France and the surrounding areas that inspired him, I’ll try to figure out what all the fuss is about.
Charming: Martin Symington explores Aix-en-Provence, pictured, in southern France, the ‘sun-drenched, easy-going’ hometown of artist Paul Cezanne
To the left is a bronze statue of the Post-Impressionist painter in Aix-en-Provence, a place Cezanne “lives and breathes,” according to Martin. Pictured on the right is Cezanne’s work Still life with fruit bowl. Tate Modern in London is hosting a retrospective of the artist’s work next month
Cezanne lived and breathed Aix. To get a sense of its beauty and history, think of Bath or Oxford. ‘If you were born there, nothing else is good enough’, is how the artist put it.
A Cézanne-themed walking trail, marked with brass studs, winds through the town, taking me to places like the house on Rue de l’Opera where the artist was born in 1839; the school where he and the writer Emile Zola became lifelong friends; and Les Deux Garcons brasserie, where the pair would blast the wind.
The path winds through the medieval neighborhood of Mazarin, which I love, with its shady squares and fountains bubbling in cool courtyards.
Narrow streets suddenly lead to Cours Mirabeau, the aristocratic avenue lined with terraces, perfect for enjoying a glass of chilled Provençal rosé.
The walk ends at Atelier de Cezanne, his airy studio on Lauves Hill, which is virtually abandoned; canvases and oil paint, baskets of ripe red apples, scents of linseed and a paint-stained ladder. I feel the aura of the artist. Maybe he just came out to smoke a pipe?
The next morning I make my way to the Terrain des Peintres viewpoint, now a public park, just outside Aix, where Cezanne would sit facing the Montagne Sainte-Victoire.
Upstairs is a room in Atelier de Cezanne, the artist’s airy studio, which ‘has been left virtually as it was; canvases and oil paint, baskets of ripe red apples, scents of linseed and a paint-stained ladder’
This is the majestic mountain he compulsively painted – over 80 oils and watercolors. The subject may be the same, but the paintings contain an arsenal of angles, lights and shades, gray-blue, ocher and pools of green.
Several are featured in the Tate exhibition, which is curated to describe his drift towards more abstract works.
Driving along the river Arc, I see with my own eyes how Sainte-Victoire exerts its presence over Aix and its surroundings. I follow the winding road (known today as Route Cezanne, unavoidably) which he is said to have traveled a thousand times in his horse and carriage in search of a different mood of the mountain to capture.
Pictured is Montagne Sainte-Victoire, the majestic mountain that Cezanne compulsively painted – over 80 oils and watercolors
Martin visits the Terrain des Peintres viewpoint (pictured), now a public park, just outside Aix, where Cezanne would sit to enjoy the view of the Montagne Sainte-Victoire
Kirker Holidays (kirkerholidays.com) offers three nights B&B at Hotel Le Pigonnet from £669 pp, including flights and transfers. Guided tours by secretsdici.fr. The EY Exhibition: Cezanne is on view at the Tate Modern in London from October 5 to March 12, 2023 (tickets £22, tate.org.uk).
Time to unravel the mysteries of Carrieres de Bibemus, a jumble of sandstone quarries 5km east of Aix and another of Cezanne’s obsessions.
Access is limited to guided groups, so with local expert Arthur Carlier I delve into this orangish rocky landscape entangled in dark undergrowth and scented with pine resin. We dwell on viewing platforms with reproductions of works in the places where Cezanne painted them.
‘Between 1895 and 1899, Cezanne more or less lived among these rock-cuts and experimented with new techniques,’ says Arthur. Later on, Picasso would become fascinated by the form-breaking methods he developed here. Picasso called him ‘the father of us all’.
Back in Aix, I view the city’s beautiful golden structures in a new light, having learned that they were built over the centuries from stone quarried at Bibemus.
What I don’t find in his hometown is much of Cezanne’s original work. It is true that a handful hangs in the Musee Granet deep in the Mazarin district, but no one pretends that these are masterpieces.
This is because Cezanne passed away barely acknowledged. Aix high society had taken against him; the museum’s curator swore there would be no work by the local madman on his watch. That may be why the man who lived and breathed Aix is sculpted to look astonished, as he stands at Fontaine de la Rotonde.
Now that he has taken his place among the greats of all time, however, it is Aix-en-Provence that Cezanne lives and breathes.