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

By Jonathan Jones

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 Cézanne's unflinching portraits, coming to Britain this autumn, didn't 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 Trocadéro 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 d'Avignon 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.

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