5 paintings that show how we really see

In landscapes like Mont Sainte-Victoire (1902-6), Cézanne explored how reality is a construct of the mind not the eye. It’s an approach that aligns with the work of 19th-Century scientists like the German physician Hermann von Helmholtz and the English neurologist WJ Dodds, who both showed that vision is not purely optical, but influenced by our memories, appetites and our senses of smell, touch and taste. Cézanne’s deep familiarity with the landscape around the Mont Sainte-Victoire – its rubbly terrain, yearly shifts in colour and various perspectives on the mountain itself indicated by the multiple blue outlines of its profile – have permeated his means of representation.

Cézanne’s achievement, therefore, was to use the act of painting to scrutinise human perception with unprecedented honesty and curiosity. “Cézanne was the midwife of 20th-Century modernist art movements,” Natalia Sidlina summarised. “He put questions at the core of what he was doing, he put the process ahead of the result.”

In doing so he displaced a traditional notion of the eye as a passive “camera” and replaced it with a more nuanced consideration of perception as fallible, mobile, improvisatory, time-based and always inherently embodied. And the more we discover about how the eye interacts with human consciousness, the more Cézanne’s probing, sceptical art makes sense. Perhaps this is why he has continued to be such a compelling figure in the history of art.

Cézanne is at Tate Modern, London, until 12 March 2023.

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