He painted his wife without lips. He painted his friend with a spinal deformity. And he painted himself as a phantom in a top hat. Paul Czannes unflinching portraits, coming to Britain this autumn, didnt just astonish Picasso and his adherents. They changed artwork for ever

In Paris at the dawning of the 20 th century, a generation of young artists changed everything. They visited the dusty yet magical galleries of the Ethnography Museum in the rambling Trocadro and some started their own collections of African masks. This fascination with non-European art has enabled them break with hundreds of years of tradition. Pablo Picasso completed a portrait of his friend Gertrude Stein by making her a mask instead of a face. He then painted Les Demoiselles dAvignon with its wildly cavorting masked prostitutes. Modern art was born in those bold years, in a glamorous atmosphere of absinthe, medications( Picasso and his pals dabbled in opium) and sexuality in the red light district of Montmartre.

There is just one problem with this exhilarating tale of the proposed establishment of modern artwork. It is not true.

My doubts began a couple of years ago in Londons National Gallery. I was looking at Paul Czannes Les Grandes Baigneuses , which he started in 1894. He was in his 50 s then and did not complete it until 1905, one year before his death. Seeming at the bold slashing lines of its landscape and the monumental abstracted nudes assembled under a crystalline sky, I realised something about the faces. Their eyes are dark sharp cuts. Their mouths, too. Their snouts are like rigid blocks of wood. These are not faces. They are masks.

Yet they were painted by a human who, as far as anyone knows, had never looked at any African art. As for sex and drugs, he never ran near them. The artwork of Czanne is the fruit of long, focused survey by one humankind in front of an easel through long hot Provenal periods. And this is the art that changed everything. This great 19 th-century artist devised almost everything we attribute to Matisse, Picasso and Braque. Modernism is all there in paintings he executed as early as the 1880 s. Czanne may be the single most revolutionary artist who ever lived.

Her lips are made to vanish Madame Czanne in a Yellow Chair( 1888/90 ). Photo: Art Institute of Chicago

To be fair, Picasso never feigned otherwise. His adulation of Czanne was so great he bought an manor in the foothills of Mont Sainte-Victoire, the mountain in Provence that became a famous theme in some of Czannes greatest paints. The Spanish artist is interred there. He and Braque find their motion, cubism, as the direct continuation of Czannes work.

Why do we persist in attributing to the artists of the 1900 s suggestions they themselves confessed Czanne had come up with a quarter of a hundred years ago? It is partly because of the dismal cliche that impressionism, the movement with which Czanne was associated in the 1870 s, is soft and gentle, even chocolate box. Yet it is also the defect of Czannes admirers.

For about 80 years after his death, the belief was held by critics that Czannes art produces directly towards the high abstraction of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. His painting was given almost mystic properties by theorists of modernism. It can do your psyche in trying to understand exactly why his apples lead to a flat scene surface, specially when those apples seem so damned round. Then, in the 1980 s, we entered the age of postmodern arts and it no longer seemed essential for anyone to induce that effort.

Yet I am still banging my brain against those apples. My introduced by modern art was the classic Robert Hughes TV series The Shock of the New in which Czanne is as towering as his mountain. So I couldnt wait to see Czanne Portraits , which comes to the National Portrait Gallery this October. I had to see it at its earlier stop, at the Muse dOrsay in Paris. It turns out to be the exhibition Czanne deserves and necessities: a powerful, even shocking revelation of his genius.

Lets begin with masks. My suspicion that Picasso did not get them from African or Oceanian art but determined them first in the paintings of Czanne is amply confirmed by the long row of portraits of his wife, Hortense Fiquet, that line a wall, like Easter Island statues overlooking a bleak ocean. In a portrait he began in 1886, his wifes face becomes a porcelain mask. It is almost perfectly oval, unlike any human face. It is also as pale as a china beaker. Weirdest of all, the lips are in the process of vanishing. Czanne deletes his wifes mouth in a blank blue-tinged nothingness. For the moment lets leave any psychological interpreting of that aside. The artist looks at this face as if he were an foreigner, making a digital simulation of a human being.

His art dealer Ambroise Vollard seems back at him in the same alienated way. In Czannes 1899 portrait, the dealers black eyes had not yet been human illumination: they are like holes in a mask. Vollards face is made of patches of colour, interacting greens, maroons and ambers. Its harmony is unreal. Thin eyebrows balance above a straight snout under an enormous forehead.

Once you start looking for Czannes masks, they are everywhere in portraits of children, peasants, even of himself. In about 1882 he painted his face in an eerie masterpiece that has been lent by Moscows Pushkin Museum. The bald dome of his head in this self-portrait genuinely does look like a dome, or an egg a perfectly rounded object, out of which bright sunlight carves the simple, stark features of his face culminating in gray and white slashes of beard hair. What a unusual face, he imagines, as he looks in the reflect. Who is it?

Eyes like pits in a mask Czannes art dealer, Ambroise Vollard( 1899 ).

If you doubt the mask-like nature of these portraits, you merely have to compare them with Picassos Portrait of Gertrude Stein ( 1905 -6) to see how it develops its stony engraved face immediately from such paintings as Czannes Man with Folded Arms ( 1899 ). Yet if the modernist deconstruction of the human face is this far advanced in Czannes art, recognisable in the 1880 s, where does he get it from? What was he looking at?

Just for a few moments, scrutinising that porcelain portrait of Madame Czanne, did I wonder if he looked at non-European artwork for inspiration. The face nearly resembles a Japanese theater mask. Japan fascinated the French avant garde in the 19 th century in Manets portrait of Czannes lifelong pal mile Zola, the radical novelist has the obligatory Japanese art in his study.

Yet, as the developing his portraiture in this superbly lucid exhibition suggests, Czanne did not need to look at works of art from Japan or anywhere else for minds. He got his idea of the mask from looking at faces themselves, time and again, until he could see them as pure geometry.

In his portraits of his wife there is a terrible distance. When he makes her lips vanish he seems to be doing imaginary violence to her, utilizing the painterly equivalent of a scolds bridle. In other paints it is clear he is idealising her turning her face into a perfect geometrical sort like the egg that hangs by a weave in Piero della Francescas Renaissance masterpiece The Brera Madonna .

Like Piero, who wrote manuscripts on mathematics, Czanne searched for geometrical ordering in the visual world. He famously told artwork should treat nature like the sphere, the cylinder and cone. But Czannes portraits are about a lot more than symmetry; they are about the unease of the human condition.

In Manets portrait of Zola, next to a Japanese print and behind Manets own Olympia , the author has pinned up a picture by the great Spanish painter of melancholic incongruity, Velzquez. One of Czannes first portraits in this exhibition remind you of Velzquezs compassionate paints of dwarves at the Spanish courtroom. It is a portrait of his artist pal Achille Empraire, who was born with restricted growth and a spinal deformity. Instead of masking his physical frailty, Czanne emphasises it by sitting Empraire in an armchair with a very high back. Posing sadly, he has the clothes, beard and moustache of a romantic bohemian, yet his head massively outweighs his thin legs and emaciated hands.

This is Czannes first great paint. It dates from 18678 when he was still on a steep read curve as an artist. Yet it transcends its technical crudeness: it is profound, speaking of the vulnerable isolation of all human being. Enthroned like a king in his fag chair, Achille Emperaire is a tragicomic everyman. This is an unsettling and mighty image of the modern self.

Antony Valabrgue fashionable black clothes heighten the lightlessness of the space. Photo: Getty

Even more than his abstracting of the human face, it is the sensitive intelligence with which Czanne diagnoses modern malaise that stimulates him such a shattering portraitist. You see it in his 1866 portrait of his friend Antony Valabrgue gazing fixedly into space as if in a state bordering on mental disarray. Czanne cunningly uses the black clothes of 19 th-century male fashion to heighten the gloom, specifying his subject against a lightless space. It stimulates “youre thinking about” Dostoevsky, but perhaps a better fictional analogy is Zola, who likewise appears in an early portrait here.

Czanne and Zola were best friend at school in Aix before both becoming part of the Paris avant garde. Zola portrays his friend, sometimes cruelly, in his novels. He brought a new human rawness to fiction: there had never been anything like his narratives of sexuality and violence. His 1867 masterpiece Thrse Raquin is still shocking in its bleak absurdism, the most relentless, unforgiving noir fright imaginable and utterly realist. Perhaps their closeness helps us to understand why, even in his first portraits, Czanne has such a terrifying eye for inconvenience, neurosis, weakness.

He turned that eye most ruthlessly on himself. Czannes self-portraits are the emotional equivalent of his paints of Mont Sainte-Victoire endlessly questing miracles of scrutiny. What is he go looking for? Himself. His true identity. Why does he keep coming back to his own image in the mirror? He cant find what he was looking for. He thinks he has caught it, but it slip-ups away. He cannot ever be sure who he is.

In a beautiful pairing by the curators, Czanne in 1885 -6 portrays himself in a tall bowler hat( in French its a chapeau melon ) appearing from the side, as if he has just became round and spotted himself. He appears displeased. This paint has a strong, solid, virtually sculptural finish. But then he envisions again. In a second paint he has the same pose and hat but the image is dappled, incomplete, fading. Did he genuinely realize what he thought he saw? Hes uncertain now. Another unsettling reperception of his own image is a paint from about 1885 based on a photograph taken in 1872. Can the Czanne who is paint it even be sure he is the same man he was 13 times earlier? He seems far from convinced. One eye in the portrait is almost shut. The figure is isolated in ghostly blue. Who was I, then?

Czanne not only anticipates Picasso but also Proust and Joyce as he mulls on the nature of the ego. We are not continuous beings, his portraits propose. We are whodunits to ourselves and others, subdivided and fragmentary behind our masks. He is the true inventor both of modern art and the modern soul.

  • Czanne Portraits is at Muse dOrsay, Paris, until 24 September and at the National Portrait Gallery, London WC2H, from 26 October until 11 February.

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