Still Life with Cherries, one of the very rare works by Paul Cézanne that we have in Italy

The Magnani Rocca Foundation in Traversetolo preserves one of the very rare works by Paul Cézanne found in Italy: Still Life with Cherries. A work that, given also the scarcity of his work in Italian museums, is important for understanding the great French painter's research.

It is thanks to a few enlightened minds that we can admire a scant handful of Paul Cézanne’s paintings in Italian museums today. Palma Bucarelli who bought Cabanon du Jourdan, believed to be Cézanne’s last painting, for the Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea in Rome. Carlo Grassi who bought Les voleurs et l’âne for his collection, and his widow Nedda Mieli who, in 1956, donated everything to the City of Milan. And Luigi Magnani, another intelligent collector of Cézanne, who in 1990 opened to the public his “villa of masterpieces,” that of the Magnani Rocca Foundation, where one can now admire Still Life with Cherries, one of the very rare works by the great Frenchman to be found in Italy.

The same argument could be made for Cézanne as for so many other foreign artists from the Impressionists onward. Munch, Mondrian, the German Expressionists. Decades of wasted opportunities, of hasty judgments, of commissions often unable to recognize the value of painters and sculptors who founded modern art and thus to bring their works to Italian museums. For Cézanne then the regret is double, since one of the largest existing collections of Cézanne in the world was in Italy in the 1920s, that of Paolo Egisto Fabbri, who was one of the greatest supporters of the Provençal painter, with whom he was in correspondence. He came to own some 30 paintings by Cézanne: then, in order to meet a philanthropic project of his own, that of rebuilding the church of Serravalle in Casentino, destroyed by an earthquake, he was forced to sell his Cézanne paintings. No Italian museum came forward to buy them. And the substantial absence of Cézanne from Italy’s public museums, wrote Giuliano Briganti, “is a fact that must be emphasized because it is very symptomatic if we want to formulate a judgment on the culture of the ruling class to which were, in the not too distant past, entrusted the fate of our artistic policy.” A “painful story of misunderstanding, ignorance and missed opportunities,” to summarize.

Paul Cézanne, Natura morta con ciliegie (1900-1904; matita e acquerello su carta bianca, 38 x 49 cm; Traversetolo, Fondazione Magnani Rocca)
Paul Cézanne, Still
with Cherries (1900-1904; pencil and watercolor on white paper, 38 x 49 cm; Mamiano di Traversetolo, Magnani Rocca Foundation)

The chance to see Still Life with Cherries in the elegant rooms of the villa in Mamiano di Traversetolo, in the middle of the Parma countryside, partly repays the disappointment with those who, in the past, failed to understand the value of enriching public collections with works by Cézanne. Magnani said he was little interested in the subjects of the paintings he bought: “The relationship I love with the work of art is one that refers exclusively to form. A painting full of content, even beautiful stories, does not interest me at all. I only care about that which relates to the formal aspect, otherwise I remain indifferent.” This attitude led him to try to replenish his collection with works by Cézanne, the value of which Magnani was totally aware of, just as, in all likelihood, he was also aware that his search for works by the French master was an ideal counterbalance to the absence of his work in public collections. It was especially watercolors such as Still Life with Cherries that fascinated him, because of that ability of them to stand before the relative as “cerebral” images, Stefano Roffi rightly pointed out: in the watercolors, writes the director of the Magnani Rocca Foundation, “the artist recreates the consistence of things, the structure of form, the plastic sense inherent in nature: a reconnaissance of the essence that leads to a true pictorial reconstruction beyond what appears to the eye, surpassing the impressionist retinal anecdote.”

One is surprised by the apparent banality of this image. A table, depicted in perspective, arranged inside a bare room. Above, nothing but a white ceramic plate filled with cherries, and next to it a coffee cup, with spoon, on top of a saucer also made of white ceramic. We cannot consider Cézanne the father of modern art because otherwise, to paraphrase Jean Clair, we would have to exclude all research on the figurative from modernity, but there is no doubt that much of 20th-century art stems from images like these: images where the objects in space respond to the idea of the artist who, contemplating reality, at the same time investigates its purest aspects, in order to capture the essence, the identity of what existed even before the artist, even before the human being. For this reason, Cézanne’s still lifes are profoundly different from all those that preceded them: the relative does not have the feeling of having happened upon a table prepared for a meal, there are no objects that someone, arriving at any moment, will begin to use. Cézanne’s still lifes are constructions of the artist, they are a kind of laboratory.

The artist tries to grasp the complexity of the world from its most basic forms, primary cells of an extremely rich universe. “Get to the heart of what exists from before you and continue to express yourself in the most logical way possible”: this was the idea Cézanne manifested in a letter sent on May 26, 1904 to Émile Bernard from his Aix-en-Provence. From this quest comes the extreme simplicity of form that characterizes the Still Life with Cherries at the Magnani Rocca Foundation, as well as so many of Cézanne’s other still lifes. A simplicity of form that is, however, complemented by a harmonious balance of colors, by a calibrated alternation of empty and full spaces, with the light bringing out the edge of the table and bringing out the volume of the cherries.

One of the earliest enthusiasts of Paul Cézanne’s art, Roger Fry, noted that one has to look at the outline of objects to realize the complexity of Cézanne’s art. This applies to everything we find in Still Life with Cherries: the outline, see for example that of the table, is only apparently continuous. In reality it changes with vivid frenzy, it is anything but uniform, varying in the arrangement of the strokes that compose it, in brightness, in color, even in thickness. “We thus obtain,” wrote Fry, “the notion of extreme simplicity in the general result and infinite variety in every part. It is this infinitely changing quality of the very material of the painting that communicates such a vivid sense of life.” And despite the simplicity of the forms, everything is movement, everything is filled with life, everything brings us back to the chaos that the artist tries to master in order to grasp its meaning. With the added bonus, compared to oil paintings, of that feeling of immediacy that watercolor can provide, and which did not prevent Cézanne from expressing with equal effectiveness his desire to capture the eternity of images.

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