Son finally shines

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 November, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 November, 2006, 12:00am

The father of modern art died 100 years ago - but the town where he was born has only just started celebrating his genius. Until recently, painter Paul Cezanne was far from being Aix-en-Provence's favourite son.


'Aix and Cezanne just didn't get on,' says Yannick, a guide on the Cezanne Trail. He is standing before the statue recently erected in the painter's honour in the ancient town in the Bouches-du-Rhone region where he grew up. Before that the area's only tribute to the founder of modernism was the small fountain in the rue des Bagniers, incorporating a bronze medallion based on the famous Renoir portrait.


'You'd think he'd always been a local hero,' says Yannick as we pass shop after shop displaying Cezanne's face or name. 'Not so. His art was so new and exagger-atedly simple that people laughed at it. He rarely painted in the town centre for fear of public ridicule. No one could understand his style. It was so original: the reduction of forms to geometric essentials. No one would buy his work. Now one painting by Cezanne can fetch US$60 million.'


The family was not popular either. Cezanne's father, Louis-Auguste, opened Aix's first bank, Banque Cezanne et Cabassol. 'No one liked the Cezannes,' says Yannick. 'Today the city owns a few sketches, but none of his paintings.' Belatedly, Aix recently held a major exhibition of 116 works by a man who influenced the likes of Matisse and Picasso and has opened for the first time the Bibemus quarries, where he gained much inspiration. The ancient limestone pits were first worked in the


Roman period; they also helped produce 27 paintings from 1895 to 1904, Cezanne often painting sur le motif (in the landscape).


In The Footsteps of Cezanne, a tour in and around Aix that can be tackled by bus or on foot, takes in more than 40 Cezanne-related sights and begins at his birthplace at 28 rue de l'Opera. Born in 1839, Cezanne was the illegit-imate son of a hat maker (later turned banker) and one of his employees. The hat shop, Chapellerie du Cours Mirabeau, can still be seen. Appropriately, it's now a bank. The family homes in rue de la Glaciere and later in rue Emeric David are still standing, as is the College Bourbon, now College Mignet, where Cezanne met his great friend, novelist Emile Zola.


Cezanne was not successful at school but took drawing classes at the Musee Granet, where the recent commemorative exhibition was held. His father insisted he study law and even paid a man to pretend to be his son so Paul would not be called up for military service.


All Cezanne wanted to do was paint. 'I am convinced that Aix Cathedral gave him inspiration,' says Yannick, walking around the cloisters of Saint-Sauveur. 'He was inspired by the simplistic forms of the Romanesque statues here, the cylinders of the necks and fingers of statues, the primitivism.'


In 1860, Cezanne's father bought the House of the Blowing Wind, where Paul painted 12 allegorical scenes on the living-room walls. He later famously painted the mansion's gardens, pool and chestnut-lined avenue.


In 1864, Cezanne moved to Paris but travelled frequently between the capital and Aix, staying in the villages of Gardanne and L'Estaque in Provence, both immortalised in his work. In 1869, he met Marie-Hortense Fiquet, a bookbinder and artist's model. Three years later their son Paul was born; eventually they married in Aix's Church of Saint Jean-Baptiste du Faubourg.


From 1887, Cezanne rented a room in the pistachio-tree-covered courtyard of Chateau Noir, near the Bibemus quarries. There he produced 19 oil paintings and 20 watercolours. At his sister Rose's house at Bellevue he completed 13 paintings and three at the Trois-Sautets Bridge. These sights can be visited on the tour.


Easily Cezanne's favourite subject, however, was the Sainte-Victoire mountain, which he painted 87 times. You can stand on the spot in the Domaine de la Marguerite area where he assembled his easel to paint the pyramid-shaped mountain, just outside Aix, which first appeared in The Railway Cutting in 1870.


In 1901, Cezanne and his sisters sold the family home and Paul bought a plot on Lauves Hill, where he had an atelier built and where he painted his famous The Bathers. Les Lauves now has the postal address 9 avenue Paul Cezanne and is open to the public. The windows are north-facing to minimise reflections, and on view are the vases, cups and skulls that recur in many of Cezanne's still-life paintings, as well as priceless personal belongings such as hats, coats, his famous portable easel, his business card, cufflinks, a pipe, a tie and an inkwell.


Les Lauves is the setting for numerous cultural events, including painting nights, photographic exhibitions in the garden, gastronomic parties and evening projections of Cezanne's works onto the outer walls of the studio.


Cezanne died of pleurisy in 1906 at his house at 23 rue Boulegon, now a doctor's surgery, after painting in the rain. His funeral was held in Saint-Sauveur Cathedral and he is buried in Saint-Pierre cemetery in Aix. A century after he gave the Provencal region its cultural identity, Cezanne is big business. Aix is beginning to say thank you. At last.


Getting there: Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific.com) flies from Hong Kong to Marseille, from where trains and buses run to Aix-en-Provence. At the 18th-century Grand Hotel Negre Coste in Aix, rooms start at 70 euros (HK$685) a person per night. For further information about Aix and In The Footsteps of Cezanne, see www.visitprovence.com and www.aixenprovencetourism.com.