Ca alors, is it really Paul Cezanne? The Post-Impressionist painter stands by 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 seems bemused by the attention it’s attracting.
Next month, Cezanne will come to London’s Tate Modern for a “once-in-a-generation, career-spanning retrospective” of his life and work. I have done the reverse trip. In Cezanne’s tranquil, sun-kissed birthplace in the south of France and the surrounding areas that inspired him, I’ll try to find out what all the fuss is about.
Enchanting: Martin Symington explores Aix-en-Provence, pictured, in the south of France, the ‘sun-drenched and tranquil’ birthplace of artist Paul Cezanne
To the left is a bronze statue of the Post-Impressionist painter in Aix-en-Provence, a place that Cezanne “lives and breathes,” according to Martin. Pictured to the right is Cézanne’s Still Life with Fruit Bowl. London’s Tate Modern hosts a retrospective of the artist’s work next month
Cezanne lived and breathed Aix. To get an idea of its beauty and history, think of Bath or Oxford. ‘When you’re born there, nothing else is good enough,’ is how the artist put it.
A Cezanne-themed walking path marked with brass tacks winds through the city, taking me to sites like the house on Rue de l’Opera where the artist was born in 1839; the school where he and writer Emile Zola became lifelong friends; and the Les Deux Garçons brasserie, where the couple fired up the breeze.
The path winds through the medieval quarter of Mazarin, which I love, with its shady squares and bubbling fountains in cool courtyards.
The narrow streets suddenly spill into Cours Mirabeau, the aristocratic avenue lined with terrace cafes perfect for a glass of chilled Provençal rosé wine.
The walk ends at Cezanne’s Atelier, his airy studio on Lauves Hill, which has been left largely unchanged; canvases and oils, baskets of ripe red apples, puffs of flaxseed, and a paint-splattered staircase. I feel the aura of the artist. Perhaps he just went out to smoke a pipe?
The next morning I head to the Terrain des Peintres viewpoint, now a public park, outside Aix, where Cezanne used to sit facing the Montagne Sainte-Victoire.
Upstairs is Cezanne’s Atelier, the artist’s airy studio, which ‘has been left pretty much as it was; canvases and oils, baskets of ripe red apples, puffs of flaxseed, and a paint-splattered staircase’
This is the majestic mountain that he compulsively painted: more than 80 oil paintings and watercolors. The subject matter may be the same, but the paintings involve a panoply of angles, light and shadow, blue grays, ochres, and pools of green.
Several are in the Tate exhibition, which has been curated to narrate his drift towards more abstract works.
Driving along the Arc River, I see for myself how Sainte-Victoire exerts its presence over Aix and its surroundings. I follow the winding path (today known as the Cézanne Route, inevitably) that he would have traveled a thousand times with his horse and cart in search of another mood of the mountain to capture.
In the photo, Montagne Sainte-Victoire, the majestic mountain that Cezanne compulsively painted: more than 80 oil paintings and watercolors.
Martin visits the Terrain des Peintres viewpoint (pictured), now a public park, outside Aix, where Cezanne used to sit to take in views of Montagne Sainte-Victoire.
Kirker Holidays (kirkerholidays.com) offers three nights’ bed and breakfast at Hotel Le Pigonnet from £669 per person, including flights and transfers. Guided tours by secretsdici.fr. The EY Exhibition: Cezanne will be presented at the Tate Modern in London from October 5 to March 12, 2023 (tickets £22, tate.org.uk).
Time to unearth the mysteries of Carrieres de Bibemus, a jumble of sandstone quarries 5km east of Aix and another Cezanne obsession.
Access is restricted to guided groups, so with local expert Arthur Carlier I immerse myself in this orange rocky landscape tangled with dark undergrowth and scented with pine resin. We stop at viewing platforms displaying reproductions of works in the places where Cezanne painted them.
“Between 1895 and 1899, Cezanne lived more or less among these cut rocks, experimenting with new techniques,” says Arthur. Picasso would later be captivated by the groundbreaking methods he developed here. Picasso referred to him as ‘the father of us all’.
Back in Aix, I see the city’s beautiful golden structures in a new light, having learned that they were built, over the centuries, from stone quarried in Bibemus.
What I don’t find in his hometown is much of Cézanne’s original work. Sure, a handful hang in the Musee Granet deep in the Mazarin neighborhood, but no one pretends they’re masterpieces.
This is because Cézanne died barely recognized. The high society of Aix had taken against him; the curator of the museum swore that no work of the local madman would hang there under his watch. Perhaps that is why the Man Who Lived and Breathed Aix has been sculpted to look bewildered, as he stands beside Fontaine de la Rotonde.
However, now that he has taken his place among the all-time greats, it is Aix-en-Provence where Cézanne lives and breathes.