Czanne unmasked: the shattering portraits that blew Picasso and the Paris avant garde away

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

In Paris at the dawn of the 20th 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 helped them break with hundreds of years of tradition. Pablo Picasso completed a portrait of his friend Gertrude Stein by giving 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, drugs (Picasso and his friends dabbled in opium) and sex in the red light district of Montmartre.

There is just one problem with this exhilarating story of the birth of modern art. 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 50s then and did not complete it until 1905, one year before his death. Looking at the bold slashing lines of its landscape and the monumental abstracted nudes gathered under a crystalline sky, I realised something about the faces. Their eyes are dark sharp cuts. Their mouths, too. Their noses are like rigid blocks of wood. These are not faces. They are masks.

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

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

To be fair, Picasso never pretended otherwise. His adulation of Czanne was so great he bought an estate in the foothills of Mont Sainte-Victoire, the mountain in Provence that became a famous motif in some of Czannes greatest paintings. The Spanish artist is buried there. He and Braque saw their movement, cubism, as the direct continuation of Czannes work.

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

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

Yet I am still banging my head against those apples. My introduction to 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 needs: 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 saw 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 cup. Weirdest of all, the lips are in the process of vanishing. Czanne erases his wifes mouth in a blank blue-tinged nothingness. For the moment lets leave any psychological interpretation of that aside. The artist looks at this face as if he were an alien, making a digital simulation of a human being.

His art dealer Ambroise Vollard looks back at him in the same alienated way. In Czannes 1899 portrait, the dealers black eyes have no human light: they are like holes in a mask. Vollards face is made of patches of colour, interacting greens, reds and yellows. Its harmony is unreal. Thin eyebrows balance above a straight nose under an immense 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 really 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 grey and white slashes of beard hair. What a strange face, he thinks, as he looks in the mirror. Who is it?

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

If you doubt the mask-like nature of these portraits, you only have to compare them with Picassos Portrait of Gertrude Stein (1905-6) to see how it develops its stony carved face directly 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 1880s, where does he get it from? What was he looking at?

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

Yet, as the development of his portraiture in this superbly lucid exhibition suggests, Czanne did not need to look at works of art from Japan or anywhere else for ideas. He got his idea of the mask from looking at faces themselves, again 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, applying the painterly equivalent of a scolds bridle. In other paintings it is clear he is idealising her turning her face into a perfect geometrical form like the egg that hangs by a thread in Piero della Francescas Renaissance masterpiece The Brera Madonna.

Like Piero, who wrote manuscripts on mathematics, Czanne searched for geometrical order in the visual world. He famously said art 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 irony, Velzquez. One of Czannes first portraits in this exhibition is reminiscent of Velzquezs compassionate paintings of dwarves at the Spanish court. It is a portrait of his artist friend 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 painting. It dates from 18678 when he was still on a steep learning curve as an artist. Yet it transcends its technical crudeness: it is profound, speaking of the vulnerable isolation of all human beings. Enthroned like a king in his queer chair, Achille Emperaire is a tragicomic everyman. This is an unsettling and mighty image of the modern self.

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

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

Czanne and Zola were best friends 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 stories of sex and violence. His 1867 masterpiece Thrse Raquin is still shocking in its bleak absurdism, the most relentless, unforgiving noir horror imaginable and utterly realist. Perhaps their closeness helps us to understand why, even in his first portraits, Czanne has such a terrifying eye for discomfort, neurosis, weakness.

He turned that eye most ruthlessly on himself. Czannes self-portraits are the emotional equivalent of his paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire endlessly questing miracles of scrutiny. What is he 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 slips 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) looking from the side, as if he has just turned round and spotted himself. He looks displeased. This painting has a strong, solid, almost sculptural finish. But then he thinks again. In a second painting he has the same pose and hat but the image is dappled, incomplete, vanishing. Did he really see what he thought he saw? Hes uncertain now. Another unsettling reperception of his own image is a painting from about 1885 based on a photograph taken in 1872. Can the Czanne who is painting it even be sure he is the same man he was 13 years earlier? He seems far from convinced. One eye in the portrait is almost closed. The figure is isolated in ghostly blue. Who was I, then?

Czanne not only anticipates Picasso but also Proust and Joyce as he meditates on the nature of the self. We are not continuous beings, his portraits suggest. We are mysteries to ourselves and others, divided 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.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/aug/11/cezanne-unmasked-the-shattering-portraits-that-blew-picasso-paris-avant-garde-away

The hidden history of Nasas black female scientists

The diversity of Nasas workforce in 1940s Virginia is uncovered in a new book by Margot Lee Shetterly. She recalls how a visit to her home town led to a revelation

Mrs Land worked as a computer out at Langley, my father said, taking a right turn out of the parking lot of the First Baptist church in Hampton, Virginia. My husband and I visited my parents just after Christmas in 2010, enjoying a few days away from our full-time life and work in Mexico.

They squired us around town in their 20-year-old green minivan, my father driving, my mother in the front passenger seat, Aran and I buckled in behind like siblings. My father, gregarious as always, offered a stream of commentary that shifted fluidly from updates on the friends and neighbours wed bumped into around town to the weather forecast to elaborate discourses on the physics underlying his latest research as a 66-year-old doctoral student at Hampton University.

He enjoyed touring my Maine-born-and-raised husband through our neck of the woods and refreshing my connection with local life and history in the process.

As a callow 18-year-old leaving for college, Id seen my home town as a mere launching pad for a life in worldlier locales, a place to be from rather than a place to be. But years and miles away from home could never attenuate the citys hold on my identity and the more I explored places and people far from Hampton, the more my status as one of its daughters came to mean to me. That day after church, we spent a long while catching up with the formidable Mrs Land, who had been one of my favourite Sunday school teachers. Kathaleen Land, a retired Nasa mathematician, still lived on her own well into her 90s and never missed a Sunday at church.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/feb/05/hidden-figures-black-female-scientists-african-americans-margot-lee-shetterly-space-race

V for Vendetta, Fahrenheit 451, and five other books that reflect Trump’s America

Is Nineteen Eighty-Four too obvious? Readers suggest books with the rise of a US oligarchy, alternative facts and a president who wont live in the White House

George Orwells Nineteen Eighty-Four has seen a surge in popularity since the election of Donald Trump, but other dystopian works of fiction are available. Following on from Alex Herns suggestions on Thursday, our readers offered the novels they think best capture the spirit of the times.

V for Vendetta by Alan Moore

To be sure, the management is very bad. In fact, let us not mince words the management is terrible! Weve had a string of embezzlers, frauds, liars and lunatics making a string of catastrophic decisions. This is plain fact.

But who elected them? It was you! You who appointed these people! You who gave them the power to make your decisions for you!

Clearly, we have elected the bad management that sits in office today, making catastrophic decisions. V for Vendetta depicts a state run by a dictator who rose to power after starting as an elected official, surrounding himself with people who think like him and are all too willing to carry out his extreme agenda.

Laurel Jones, Portland, Oregon

The Iron Heel by Jack London

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The Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft factory in Untertuerkheim, near Stuttgart, in 1904. Photograph: AP

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The novel accurately predicts the rise of the oligarchy in the US and the methods employed to widen the gap between the rich and the poor. From the bankrupting of small business owners and the subsequent wiping out of the middle classes, to favoured unions selling out their peers, Jack London predicted it all. The 1% existed then, and the 1% still exists now.

As a bonus, the novels primary protagonist is an educated woman by the name of Avis Everhard, which in 1908 was a pretty big deal, given that women did not even have the vote.

Suzi Smith, Edinburgh

If This Goes On … by Robert A Heinlein

When any government, or any church for that matter, undertakes to say to its subjects, This you may not read, this you must not see, this you are forbidden to know, the end result is tyranny and oppression, no matter how holy the motives. Mighty little force is needed to control a man whose mind has been hoodwinked.

A dystopian future, where psychological techniques are used to evaluate and manipulate the population. A religious dictator controls the US, and is eventually overthrown by the military. But Heinleins psychodynamics manipulating populations by systems of mathematics that make use of semantic indices for words quantification of the emotional impact of one word-choice over another in a given context looks much like the work done by Cambridge Analytica to assist Trump and Farage. The respected Stanford academic Michal Kosinski seems to have made psychodynamics a reality, and now Steve Bannon and Breitbart are using his ideas to rebuild fascism.

David Holmes, Newark

The Limits of the World by Andrew Raymond Drennan

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A template for Trumps America? North Korean soldiers gather at Munsu Hill to lay flowers in front of statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Photograph: Wong Maye-E/AP

.

Painting slogans on walls is hard to keep quiet. Too many people see it. They tell their neighbours who tell other people at the market. Rumour becomes fact very quickly.

And what about our facts?

Han tried to smile, but felt it turning into a smirk, the kind he had seen senior officers make over the years. Our facts are better, comrade secretary. He let the smirk drift from his face: he was surprised how easy it was to sound like them.

This is a short conversation about some anti-establishment graffiti that appears in Pyongyang. It entirely resonates with the recent alternative facts debacle. The book, set in Pyongyang, consistently throws up draconian procedures of government and rules that are cropping up in Trumps rhetoric. There are terrifying similarities between the DPRK and what could be in store for the US over the next four years.

Joseph Martin-Kelly, 32, London

The Penultimate Truth by Philip K Dick

Its the third world war and millions live underground, producing robots for the conflict raging on the surface. TV is piped down to them, describing how the war is progressing.

But in reality the war is long over, and the upper society are living comfortable lives in mansions on massive estates maintained by the robots manufactured below the surface. Every now and again, they have robot skirmishes to determine who gets the nicest area to live. To maintain this, they create fake media and lies, even rewriting the history of WWII.

The fake news and lies are reminiscent of the Trumps presidency alternative facts, but the real uncomfortable similarity is that, unlike in Nineteen Eight-Four or Brave New World, the elite arent violent, moralistic or even overtly nasty; they just do all this to maintain the status quo of their nice lifestyles. I dont think Trump has much purpose other than to advance his celebrity status and lifestyle.

Jamie Wilson, 30, Cardiff

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Julie
Julie Christie in the 1966 film of Fahrenheit 451. Photograph: Everett Collection / Rex Feature

I plunk the children in school nine days out of ten. I put up with them when they come home three days a month; its not bad at all. You heave them into the parlor and turn the switch. Its like washing clothes: stuff laundry in and slam the lid … Theyd just as soon kick as kiss me. Thank God, I can kick back!

I think Ray Bradburys prediction of the modern obsession with TV was spookily accurate. Now we have the internet to allow TV to be watched on so many different platforms, we can watch it pretty much anywhere, and its potential for control of the masses is limitless. Its no surprise a president has been inaugurated who practically boasts that he has never read a book. Lets see if Trump starts suggesting book burnings …

David Murphy, Bath

It Cant Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

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Published in 1935 as a response to those who regarded Nazism as something that could never take place in the Land of the Free, the book describes how a populist politician, Buzz Windrip, becomes president through riding a wave of anti-immigrant, anti-intellectual, traditionalist sentiment.

Comparisons to Trump are obvious, but it is remarkable how prescient the novel is. Windrip promises to empower working-class white voters, and to revitalise the manufacturing industry. His speeches consist of frequently simple statements, often repeated, but lacking in any lasting tangible sentiment. His lackeys deny the official numbers that attend Windrips events, instead providing their own figures.

The new president declines to live in the White House, opting instead for an apartment where he spends his hours in front of the TV.

Barney Caswell, Manchester

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jan/27/v-for-vendetta-fahrenheit-451-trumps-america

Charles Dickens and the women who made him

Dickens is often criticised for his weak female characters. But his great-great-great-granddaughter Lucinda Dickens Hawksley says he is a product of the strong women in his life and the Victorian ideals of his times

To a modern reader, many of Dickenss heroines can seem weak, foolish figures of fun. Dickenss novels date from the 1830s to 1870, when women were legally the property of their husbands, fathers or whichever male relative called themselves head of the family. His heroines, including Flora Finching, Dora Spenlow and Rosa Budd described in The Mystery of Edwin Drood as wonderfully pretty, wonderfully childish are often infuriating to read now. At the time of their creation, however, Dickens was emulating a popular impression of what a well-brought up young lady should be like.

Many Victorian girls and even adult women were forbidden by their families to read novels if the heroines were considered too controversial (including Anne Bronts The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Charlotte Bronts Jane Eyre). Instead they were recommended to read improving books, often written by religious writers, about how girls and women should behave: think Jessicas First Prayer by Hesba Stretton and Coventry Patmores narrative poem The Angel in the House. Queen Victoria famously sacked her daughters governess after discovering one of the princesses reading a novel.

The real women in Dickenss life were very different from his domesticated and compliant creations, including three remarkable women in his family. Charless paternal grandmother, Elizabeth Dickens, was a servant in the household of Lord Crewe. She began as a housemaid and, after being widowed and left a single mother, worked her way up to the role of housekeeper. Her grandson retained vivid memories of her warm personality and storytelling.

Illustration
Elizabeth Gaskell, who was encouraged by Dickens to continue writing about subjects deemed unsuitable for female novelists. Illustration: George Richmond/Alamy

Dickenss mother Elizabeth taught her children mathematics, literacy and Latin. She and her husband, John Dickens, were also unusually progressive in believing it was their eldest child, a daughter, Fanny, whose education was more important than their sons. (Fanny was two years older than Charles and a talented musician, winning a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music.)

As well as his family, the women Dickens chose to surround himself with show an appreciation of a sharp, female presence. There were so many fascinating women in Dickenss life: the novelist Anne Thackeray Ritchie, who shocked society with her engagement, at 39, to a fiance who was 17 years her junior and her godson; the anti-slavery campaigner and educationalist Elizabeth Jesser Reid; and the author Elizabeth Gaskell, who Dickens tracked down in 1848 despite her writing anonymously. Dickens encouraged Gaskell to continue writing about subjects deemed unsuitable for a female novelist, such as illegitimacy and prostitution.

One of the most influential of Dickenss female friends was the banking heiress Angela Burdett-Coutts. They met in the early 1830s. A few years later she was asked to be godmother to Charles and Catherine Dickenss first child, Charley. In 1847, Dickens and Burdett-Coutts set up their most famous joint venture: Urania Cottage in Londons Shepherds Bush, intended as a rehabilitation home for so-called fallen women (a category which covered all manner of social ills), where they could learn basic literacy and numeracy as well as cooking, sewing and cleaning. Dickens worked with prison governors to help women who were about to be released; he was passionate about rehabilitation, convinced that most female convicts were not inherently criminal but simply desperate, failed by a harsh society.

Both Urania Cottage and its founders friendship eventually fell victim to the breakdown of the Dickenses marriage, when Burdett-Coutts found it difficult to forgive her friend for his treatment of his wife.

An
A sparky intelligent woman Catherine Dickens, circa 1836. Photograph: Michael Nicholson/CORBIS

Even Dickenss much-maligned wife Catherine, who is often criticised as having been too compliant and too similar to his fictional heroines, was actually a sparky, intelligent woman who was simply laid low by a combination of constant childbearing and postnatal depression. In their early marriage, Catherine enjoyed a happy, adventurous life, accompanying her husband to America and Canada. She acted in a series of theatricals at home and abroad, and she wrote a book,What Shall We Have for Dinner?, intended as a guide for young housewives (preceding the more celebrated Mrs Beeton by a decade). Sadly, Catherine Dickens is usually remembered today as the saddened and wronged wife, eclipsed by her younger rival for Dickenss affections the actor Ellen Ternan rather than as the bright woman Dickens married.

So why do Dickenss female characters lack so much? Many criticise his heroines for being far too thinly sketched: they can be beautiful and good but seldom deep-thinking or intelligent. The ones with spirit and sharpness tend not to be considered sexually alluring, and, often by reason of being thwarted financially or socially, they tend not to be written about in terms of becoming wives (think of Rosa Dartle or Miss Wade).

Those who do manage to overcome the barrier of being too quick or witty or clever tend to lose this spark as soon as they fall in love such as Bella Wilfer in Our Mutual Friend as though it wasnt really their true personality but merely one they were toying with. There is a sense that once Bella has been tamed by marriage, all that independent nonsense will leave her.

Perhaps, in his heroines, Dickens was portraying an idealised woman, one whom, when he encountered her in reality, proved less than ideal; or perhaps he was creating the kind of women he thought his audience wanted to read about. Considering how many independent and intriguing women Dickens knew, I think it is remarkable that he is derided for making his literary heroines too docile or one-dimensional, as such descriptions could not have been applied to the real women in his life. Dickens scholars can argue for years about whether he was creating women he idealised or whether he was creating characters symbolic of the Victorian stereotype of women.

Dickens was a superb publicist, always aware of what sold, but he also refused to pander to public opinion. This isnt just seen in his hard-hitting journalism, but also in his tenderness towards characters such as Nancy in Oliver Twist (whom Dickens never refers to as a prostitute, and whose death caused him physical anguish), and Little Emly in David Copperfield. He saw both these women as victims of a cruel society which allowed men to behave in one way and expected women to behave in another.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/06/charles-dickens-and-the-women-who-made-him