Paul Cézanne: The Card Players, review

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n focusing on a short series, the Courtauld Institute provides more insight into the way he worked than even a huge exhibition might have, says Richard Dorment .

Cézanne’s series of paintings The Card Players is the cornerstone of his work between 1890 and 1895, and the prelude to the explosive creative achievement of his last years. It was a simple but inspired idea for the Courtauld Gallery to bring together three of the five versions of the picture and to display them alongside the preparatory studies in pencil, watercolour and oil. In addition, three of Cézanne’s most powerful portraits, all showing one of the models Cézanne used for The Card Players, complete our understanding of how he worked during this crucial period.

Although it isn’t a big show, we emerge more aware than ever of the complexity of Cézanne’s art, but no nearer to penetrating the enigma of Cézanne himself. All we can do is to stand back and watch the artist’s thought processes over a span of five years, as he casts a critical eye over a finished canvas, decides that he can do something to improve it, starts another canvas, fails again, but fails better. Moving from picture to picture, we can see how he corrects and strengthens perceived weaknesses, as in each attempt he tries to find monumentality, simplicity and pictorial unity....

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