Is the Picture Worth it? Cézanne’s Bathers come to London

About a month ago the British government temporarily barred the export of Cézanne’s Vue sur L’Estaque et le Château d’If, which had sold at Christie’s for £13.5 million.

A Cezanne getting the white glove treatment.

The Cézanne gets the white glove treatment.

That’s an enormous amount of money, even if it’s nowhere close to the highest sum ever paid for a Cézanne, either at auction or privately. That distinction belongs to one of the artist’s five paintings of card players, which in 2011 was bought by the royal family of Qatar for somewhere north of $250 million. But £13.5 million is still more money than I can easily grasp, and the possibility of the U.K. hanging on to the landscape made me think back to late 1964, and an occasion when the country did stump up an awful lot of cash for another painting by the artist–Les Grandes Baigneuses, one of his three late, great bather canvases.

nat gallery great bathers

Part One: Philip and George

Now a fixture at the National Gallery, London, the painting was bought in France after the French Minister of Affairs (none other than André Malraux) granted it an export license, a decision he would be soundly criticized for. Since the 1930s, the other two great bather paintings had been in Philadelphia–one in the Barnes Foundation, the other in the city’s Museum of Art. It’s hard not to feel a twinge of regret that none of the three remained in France.

The National Gallery’s acquisition was widely reported in the press and also featured in a short British Pathé newsreel, which you can watch here. Though you might suppose the story really involves French “patrimony,” that doesn’t stop the newsreel from using some still-familiar rhetoric about stopping the work from “going abroad.” “If we had not stepped in promptly,” the narrator explains, “the masterpiece would have gone to another country, and few of our own people would ever have seen it.”

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Dated 1965, the newsreel was probably made quite early in that year. For, on January 8, 1965, the The Times had reported that “[f]rom today [the painting] is on exhibition in the Board Room at the National Gallery where it will remain for some months.” And it is the Board Room that features in the film. But why hang the work there rather than in one of the gallery’s usual rooms?

Upon its arrival in London, the Cézanne had been, as The Times noted, “relined and very slightly retouched along a joint in the canvas near the bottom.” This does not, however, explain the longer delay, which was essentially a response to the controversial nature of the acquisition. The purchase had occurred during a time of financial crisis in the UK, and many commentators thought that this was a poor use of money and that the work didn’t warrant the steep price tag. Outraged letters to newspapers were written, arguments for and against the acquisition exchanged. So the painting went up in the Board Room, where, The Times noted, it could be “guarded by special security precautions and protected by a transparent plastic shield, against the possibility of such attempts as were made to damage the Leonardo Cartoon when first exhibited at the gallery.” In 1962, ink had been thrown over Leonardo’s The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and John the Baptist shortly after it had been purchased for £800,000. The incident was still fresh in the memory. Might a similar, or worse fate, meet the controversial Cézanne?

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Leonardo’s The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and John the Baptist

From its title screen to its last rhetorical question, the British Pathé film fixates on the price of the Cézanne: “half a million pounds.”

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But let’s be clear. Though the painting may have cost around £500,000, it certainly did not cost the country that much. The Max Rayne Foundation generously donated half of the funds; while the National Gallery and the government each covered a quarter. Unlike The Times, the newsreel breezily avoids these important details, preferring instead to encourage the suspicion that “we” may have paid too much for work. “For the splendidly hygienic girls in the picture,” the narrator observes, slipping into full Austin Powers mode, “one feels that not even a rash man ever left home.” Still, “[i]t’s no use non-artistic persons getting hot under the collar, culture must be served!”

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Philip and George look at The Great Bathers

Let us now say goodbye to the two cultured gentlemen from the newsreel–“the National Gallery Director, Sir Philip Hendy, and Senior Executive Office, Mr. George Fox”–and exchange them for some less “admiring” alternatives. Say, these two blokes.

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Pete and Dud in the National Gallery

Part Two: Pete and Dud

They are, of course, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, and they are performing their “Pete and Dud” characters in episode four, season one of Not Only… But Also. Broadcast on the BBC on February 20, 1965, “The Art Gallery” skit is set in a mock room in The National Gallery; here we find Pete and Dud eating sandwiches and discussing a range of matters relating to art.

It’s a brilliant and hilarious sketch. Watch it here.

At one point, Pete asks Dud whether he has “seen that bloody Leonardo da Vinci cartoon?… I couldn’t see the bloody joke… D’you know how much it cost, though?… Five hundred Billion pounds… nah, not as much… hold on a moment. Three and eight…. Or somewhere between the two.” From here, it’s a natural segue to the subject of other expensive artworks and we are immediately presented with the precise scenario the British Pathé newsreel had only recently imagined: “two non-artistic persons getting hot under the collar” about the recently acquired Cézanne. The subject of the bathers comes up towards the end of the sketch, and we are given one answer to the film’s parting question: “Is the picture worth it?” Pete answers in the negative: “Another thing we’ve wasted money on is that bloody Cézanne…. Grand Bay-nures. Have you seen that load of rubbish?”

Earlier in the sketch, Pete discusses a cliché: the idea that, in a good portrait, a sitter’s eyes will seem to follow you. He then, implausibly, transfers this idea to Vernon Ward‘s pictures of ducks, which turn out to be just the kind of work Pete and Dud are sorry to see missing from the National Gallery.

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Vernon Ward: “Ducks in the morning, ducks in the evening, ducks in the summertime!”

I’ll quote the part of their conversation about Ward, because later it has unexpected relevance to their discussion of Cézanne.

Pete: The thing what makes you know that Vernon Ward is a good painter…. If you look at his ducks. Have you even looked at his ducks?

Dud: Yeah.

P: …If you look at his ducks, you see the eyes follow you around the room. Have you noticed that?

D: Yeah, Pete.

P: If you see sixteen of his ducks, you see thirty-two little eyes following you around the room.

D: Nah, you only you sixteen, cos they’ve flying sideways. And you can’t see the other eye on the other side.

P: No. But you get the impression, Dud, that the other eye is craning around the beak to look at you, don’t you? That’s the sign of a good painting, Dud, if the eyes follow you around the room it’s a good painting. If they don’t, it isn’t.

Cézanne, needless to say, is not remembered for pictures of ducks. He did, however, once incorporate an image of geese, perhaps a copy of a lost painting by Pissarro, into the background of one of his impressionist period still-lifes. But the birds’ heads are cropped and kept out of the frame. How then, Pete and Dud might ask, can we tell whether it is a good painting or not?

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Cezanne, Still-Life with Soup Tureen, c.1877

The problem persists when one considers, as Pete and Dud do, the Les Grandes Baigneuses with this “eye test” in mind. Unfortunately, many of the bathers in the work are facing away from us, and only about half of them reveal their (summarily described) eyes to the viewer.

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Pete and Dud: Cézanne and sandwiches

Dud: …You can’t tell whether that’s a good painting or not, because you can’t see their eyes… whether they follow you around the room.

Pete: No, the sign of a good painting like that, Dud, with their backs towards you, is if the bottoms follow you around the room. If it’s a good painting, the bottoms would follow you around the room.

D: Will they?

P: Yeah.

D: So I’ll test it then.

P: You go and have a look.

D: Alright. I’ll go on up and see if they…..

P: They won’t bloody budge, I’ll tell you that mate.

D: Course I can’t look directly at it. Otherwise, you know, you’ll know I’m looking and they’d get all cagy. I’ll… it’ll be fine.

P: Are they moving, Dud?

D: I think they’re following me, Pete.

P: I don’t think they are, Dud.

D: I reckon they are, Pete.

P: No, those bottoms aren’t following you around the room: your eyes are following the bottoms around the room.

D: Same thing, innit?

P: Course it isn’t. There’s a good deal of difference between followed by a bottom and you following a bottom. Totally different!

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“Ooooh! It’s flashing all over the place. It’s coming after you, Dud.”

The camera dollies towards the bathers and then, after a dissolve, the sketch concludes with a close-up of the bathers. Off screen, we hear Pete and Dud resolving to meet elsewhere in the gallery: “See yer in the Dutch masters.” In the sketch, the painting seems about as real as the “National Gallery” surrounding it. Looking a little too small and sporting a different frame from the one we see in the British Pathé newsreel, it’s presumably a photographic copy. Did Philip and George welcome the kind of attention that Pete and Dud were bringing to the National Gallery’s recent purchase? I doubt it.

Fifty years later, what would Pete and Dud make of Cézanne’s Vue sur L’Estaque et le Château d’If? They would certainly have to come up with a different sort of test to establish whether or not is a good painting, let alone worth £13.5 million. The landscape is sadly devoid of both eyes and bottoms.

L'Estaque with view of the Chateau d'If (393x500)

In a future post I’ll say more about the landscape and the chances of Britain coming up with enough money to keep it in the country.

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