He made the mountain disappear

“Cezanne: A Life” by Alex Danchev (Pantheon, 512 pages, $40)

After successfully searching for Paul Cezanne’s paltry painting studio on the outskirts of Aix-en-Provence, my wife, Laura, and I sat with friends at a sidewalk cafe to relax from our quest.

Watching the tourists and townsfolk whiz past, I thought back to the high, stuccoed wall that kept outsiders away from Cezanne’s disappointingly prosaic workplace — a fitting symbol of his art.

For even the most knowledgeable, open-minded visitors to his 1907 retrospective exhibition in Paris — a year after his death — still complained about his “ugly” colors and distorted figures.

Of course, I didn’t agree. I knew that Cezanne’s detractors were stuck on the surface of visual discomfort. They needed new eyes to see what was hanging before them.

Later, we picnicked in the shadow of Mont Sainte-Victoire, the mountain that Cezanne had painted and repainted in his final years — first framed by tree branches, then unobstructed in full daylight, then draped in dusk’s shadows. Each view turned the mountain into his own.

Indeed, he looked so intently at Sainte-Victoire, one art critic claimed, that he made the mountain disappear.

It could have been his stark splotches of colors — oranges and tans, greens and blues, grays and purples. It could have been his skewed perspectives of nearly drunken geometric planes colliding with one another. Or it could have been the feeling that he painted into the landscape of Provence.

Whatever the cause, with every canvas he stretched in late-19th-century France, Cezanne did something even more important: He transformed the subject matter of painting into painting itself.

As such, he ranks as the proto-modernist of Western culture. Cubism, for example, which revolutionized 20th-century European art and literature — and spawned Abstract Expressionism in America — would have been impossible without Cezanne. He shattered reality, in every conventional sense of the word, only to reassemble it according to his “barbaric” vision: The violent bear it away.

Alex Danchev, in his new biography of Cezanne, takes that revolutionary insight for granted. He seems unconcerned to explore its origins, to establish its classical foundations, or to meditate on its dialectical tensions with more traditional, “realistic,” representational art.

Instead, he levels his focus at Cezanne’s widespread influence in the 20th century, from Samuel Beckett to Woody Allen to Allen Ginsberg.

This may be important from a sociological point of view, but not a biographical one. A more instructive approach would have been to let Cezanne lead us to the key that unlocks the tiny door in the stuccoed wall shutting out intruders from his meager studio; the door protecting his precious painterly project from unknowing and unseeing eyes.

To his credit, Danchev tells as much as he can in highly accessible prose — especially the story of Cezanne’s friendship with Emile Zola, the naturalistic novelist who exposed the underbelly of fin-de-siècle Paris.

Together, they sought to escape the bourgeois clutches of France through the sheer strength of their art. They inspired and encouraged each other until Zola wrote his late fictional account of Cezanne, “ L’Oeuvre,” showing the painter as a social and artistic failure.

The irony, of course, is that Cezanne proved anything but a failure in art history, while Zola remains an acquired taste in world literature.

Danchev mines the intrinsic drama of this friendship, but conveniently sidesteps the almost daily influence of Cezanne’s family on his work.

For all his burly, antisocial, unsophisticated persona, Cezanne knew the significance of his gift, even as his wife and sister repeatedly questioned it, and his father tightened the purse strings, convinced that his son still needed a “real” profession well into his 50s.

In the end, Cezanne merged the world and painting as painting’s definitive focus. You can still see the mountain in his works, but only if you see it made of pigment and raw brushwork.

All of which will likely endure longer in our imagination than the conical, volcanic stone of Mont Sainte-Victoire.