Yesterday I went to see the exhibition, Cézanne and the Modern, at the Ashmolean. It’s a tedious journey on the train from Chesterfield to Oxford, involving changing trains at Birmingham (a contender for the dreariest station in the country), but it was worth it. Only three rooms, but some amazing Cézannes, and anyway I like small exhibitions as you can really feel that you have seen everything. I don’t have a favourite artist – how could I choose just one? – but Cézanne would have to be on my list of desert island artists and I wanted to take several of them home. There were great works by Degas, Manet and Van Gogh, too, but it was the Cézannes that bowled me over and I felt all over again the wonder of standing in front a work that had come from the artist’s hand and the power and directness of that communication. Reproductions can never do that. It is the difference between live and recorded music.
For a number of years I taught a course on European Art 1880-1940 and going to exhibitions like this was part of my job. In those days I would have been thinking about how I could incorporate what I was seeing into my teaching, or even planning to take a group of students. I would have enjoyed doing that. But yesterday, I was glad that I didn’t have to. I didn’t need to think about how I would explain these pictures or how I would fit them into their artistic and historical context. I could just stand there and drink them in.
If you want to see the exhibition, you’ll have to hurry as it finishes on Sunday. I’d be going again if it wasn’t over six hours there and back. For a good review and some lovely pictures, including a Cézanne watercolour of some pears on a plate (I want it!) go to http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/mar/10/cezanne-modern-exhibition-review-ashmolean-museum-oxford