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Cezanne book celebrates life

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CEZANNE IN PROVENCE, Philip Conisbee and Denis Coutagne, Yale University Press, $60, hardback, 312 pp., 170 color plates

Near the end of Woody Allen's 1979 film "Manhattan," he — as the reflective leading character, Isaac Davis — asks himself, "Why is life worth living?" After counting down several meaningful things, near the end of the monologue he says, "um . . . those incredible apples and pears by Cezanne."

Allen's dialogue would be the perfect prelude to Yale University Press' new publication "Cezanne in Provence," by Philip Conisbee and Denis Coutagne.

Published on the centenary of the death of Paul Cezanne (1839-1906), this stunning book celebrates the artist's importance as one of the fathers of the modern painting movement, as well as demonstrating, through beautiful reproductions of his art, his love for and dedicated depiction of his hometown of Aix-en-Provence.

Although the artist spent time elsewhere in France, especially Paris, where he joined the vibrant art community, his love of his native region eventually led him to return to Provence in the 1880s, where he lived nearly all of the last 20 years of his life, dying in 1906.

The pictures featured in the book include not only landscape series such as Mont Sainte Victoire and L'Estaque, but also portraits of local characters, friends and family. There are also still lifes and imaginative figure paintings, including his monumental bathers painted in the last decade of his life.

In the publication's first essay, by Conisbee, there is detail after detail concerning the impact Provence had on the artist, who wandered the countryside on foot, observing it from every possible perspective.

According to Conisbee, "Cezanne was not a passive receptor of 'Provence': he sought out his motifs with deliberation and was, as it were, responsible for both discovering and rendering them."

Cezanne's depictions of Provence are original and compelling and mark the fulfillment of his enterprise as a landscape painter, writes Conisbee.

The book's chronology of the artist's work is enlightening, but it is the exquisite reproductions — 145 color and 30 black-and-white — that will entice readers to put this tome on their coffee table; it is deliciously designed and printed and well-bound.

"Cezanne in Provence" accompanies a major exhibition of the artist's work at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., through May 7. The exhibit then travels to the Musee Granet in Aix-en-Provence, France, from June 9-Sept. 17. Accordingly, the book provides a detailed exhibition checklist and a selected bibliography for aficionados.

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