My Favourite Painting: Sir Nicholas Serota

'The subject looks back to Botticelli, Titian and Ingres and forward to Picasso’s Demoiselles, but the visceral power is closer to relief sculpture.'

Sir Nicholas Serota chooses Five Bathers:

‘In the early 1980s, I was a regular visitor to Basel, where I was attending openings at the Kunsthalle of exhibitions, such as Malcolm Morley or Philip Guston, that I had curated for the Whitechapel Gallery. On one of my first visits, I called in at the Kunstmuseum, where I found this astonishing painting tucked away in a first-floor gallery.

‘The monumental fleshy figures, squeezed into a composition that is only 65cm [26in] square, took my breath away. The subject looks back to Botticelli, Titian and Ingres and forward to Picasso’s Demoiselles, but the visceral power is closer to relief sculpture, as I later learned had been noted by the critic Roger Fry. The painting has become an object of pilgrimage almost every time I visit Basel, with an appeal and mystery that remain as deep as on that first encounter.’

Sir Nicholas Serota is the chair of Arts Council England and the former director of the Tate, the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, and Whitechapel Gallery, London.

John McEwen comments on Five Bathers:

The poet Rilke wrote that Cézanne only developed a taste for work at 40, but then never ceased: ‘In a constant rage, in conflict with every single one of his paintings, none of which seemed to achieve what he considered to be the most indispensable thing, La realisation… exhausted every evening to the point of collapse… but celebrating Sunday, attending Mass and Vespers as he had in his childhood… hoping nevertheless from day to day that he might reach that achievement which was the only thing that mattered.’

It was at this turning point that he added scenes of naked female and male bathers to his repertoire; the subject would eventually account for some 200 oil paintings, watercolours and drawings. Five Bathers is regarded as the culmination of the first series of bathing groups that he began in the 1870s. For the first time, the figures are shown in direct communication, the standing figure in particular apparently talking to her seated neighbour.

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Cézanne’s painting, most radically in the bathers, confronted the artistic problem that photography had trumped literal depiction. His search for structural harmonies can still make his naked bathers appear ugly deformations, whereas, for artists such as Matisse and Picasso, they were liberating and transforming with abstract consequences beyond Cézanne’s most agonised dreams.

Sculptor and writer Sidney Geist (1914–2005) saw Christ’s face in their patterns and, predictably, was academically ostracised. The critic Roger Fry wrote: ‘It is probable that Cézanne himself was ignorant of these deformations.’

Novelist and painter Helena McEwen says of Five Bathers: ‘If you’d taken a Turkish bath with women you’d know that’s what they look like.’ Readers may agree.

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The National Portrait Gallery's exhibition of portraits by Paul Cézanne comes to an end this weekend. Lilias Wigan takes an

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