Relentless Intimacy

T.J. Clark

  • Cézanne Portraits
    National Portrait Gallery, London, until 11 February
    National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., 25 March to 1 July

Look first at Woman with a Cafetière, who presides over the next to last room of the Cézanne Portraits show, staring down even the saturnine Ambroise Vollard. Then meet the gaze of Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress, infinitely courageous in her alarming throne-room, oppressed – or is it enlivened? – by a glorious Vermeer curtain, a bucking dado, a chairback like a coffin lid, exploding fire tongs, white lightning in the grate, a painting – or is it a mirror? – perched on the chimney breast. It matters that both portraits are of women, and I shall come to that. But it matters just as much that still, more than a century after they were painted, these images so effortlessly keep their distance, resisting our understanding, refusing (as the philosophers say) to ‘come under a description’. In particular they strike me as putting the strange word ‘expression’ to death.

‘Woman with a Cafetière’ (c.1895)
‘Woman with a Cafetière’ (c.1895)

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[*] National Portrait Gallery, 256 pp., £35, September 2017, 978 1 85514 547 4.