Why was Cezanne great?

Having read a dozen reviews of Cezanne’s show at Tate Modern, overflowing with shallow praise for his colour, emotional depth, and vibrancy, I realised that a numbered list of Cezanne’s innovations could be a great help to anyone interested in genuinely understanding him. Of course, some people can get an emotional kick out of Cezanne just by looking at his work (minus those who just claim they get it while feeling confused and bored), but for most people, understanding is the necessary first step to enjoying Cezanne’s work. So, without further ado, let’s begin.


Cezanne introduced multiple conversion points that create the impression that the viewer sees with both eyes, is standing up and/or is walking around the scene, taking in more than is possible to see staying static.

This still life is painted as if the painter was sitting while painting the two apples in the mid-left, stood up to paint the table, and soared a few metres up to paint the floor and the back of his studio. Yet, none of the objects is falling over or sliding down. I could mention that in almost each and every of Cezanne’s compositions, points of the brightest colour and lines form a dynamic system that sends the eye flying across his paintings in ways that make eye-tracking heat maps of his paintings look like the surface of an over with all burners full on. Still, he was not the first to create it, he was just perfecting it.


Cezanne made the first step from representational painting to pure painting (this is not an apple or orange, it is orange paint – he would even circle it with blue to emphasise the point; this is also why he might leave a corner of the canvas unpainted, as a hint that the whole charade is not an appetising basket of apples but the inedible canvas and paint).


Like in physics, e.g. when painting a landscape, he would dramatically change distances (compare his landscapes to real views, say, at Annecy lake) and use “molecules” of basic shapes that he constructed as a crystallographic lattice – that’s why he would spend ages on a painting.

Deconstructing his “lattices” is like an exciting chess game. Yes, it had become the highway to abstraction.

Take this view of Saint Victoire.

Let’s now look closer.


Cezanne introduced uncertainty into art via diffusion of objects – as the viewer can’t know what is what (is it air or tree or mountain or field?), the mind is constantly puzzled, and this is why some people don’t really like Cezanne (they like being lazy, I guess). And, yes, multiple conversion points/view angles + uncertainty = cubism.

You can see it in the same view of mountain Saint Victoire. Air becomes the mountain and trees and land and houses become one.

Or you can see it here. There are – more often than not – clearly defined tree trunks, but their foliage is indistinguishably merged between them and with the air creating the semi-transparent cupola of the forest canopy that teleports the viewer inside the forest with their head looking up.


Created new formulas or recipes for combining warm and cold colours that have never been used before (like a composer that, say, would invent jazz in Vienna in the 18th c); in particular, he introduced gradations of temperature in greens and blues, and ochre that, when interlaced in his trademark crystallographic lattice, make each square centimetre seem alive via temperature conflict in the eye). You have already seen it above.

You can see the same play of temperatures that makes alive his portraits and human figures:

Just zoom in:


Cezanne made humans as monumental as nature itself, he equated them to nature, made them a part of it. Before Cezanne, people were inserted into landscapes as props – painted very differently to the nature that surrounded them, or the landscape was inserted as a background drop to men and women portrayed as bigger, better, more monumental that nature. Cezanne used the same shapes and colours to paint people that he used to paint the nature around them. He was making people an integral part of the composition, as if they were found in nature, and not a foreign “object” that moved in and would soon walk out.

Until March 12, you can visit Tate Modern to see Cezanne’s exhibition, enjoy playing visual and mind games with his art and marvel at the vibrancy of his colours not because “they told you so” but because you would feel it yourself.


  1. Еnlightening as always! I always learn so much from you! It is really good to have you back. I seem to have lost you on Instagram – are you still there? Happy New Year!

    1. Thank you, Boryana! My Instagram was taken down because I posted a video about a Gothic sculpture that their algorithms identified as sexual content. Funny, I know )

It would be grand to hear from you now!

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