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.