Pierre Bonnard. French, 1867-1947

He was part of a group known as Les Nabis, a group committed to creating work of symbolic and spiritual nature.


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Artist Statement

The relationship between painting and life is not a matter of painting life, but a matter of giving life to a painting.
Essays

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947): The Late Interiors

The artistic legacy of Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947) calls to mind the many dazzling bathing paintings of Marthe, his wife and muse of nearly fifty years, modeling in the bathtub, toweling her ever-youthful figure, or gazing at her nude likeness at her toilette. These shimmering visions of still waters, iridescent tiles, and private escapes have been in the public eye for many decades. The social and cultural milieu of Bonnard takes us back to another era, that of the later years of the nineteenth century, when a group of young artists commingled in Paris as friends and fellow painters. Emulating the expressive color and bold pattern used by Paul Gauguin, their aim was to explore a form of decorative painting. Called the Nabis (Hebrew for "prophets"), their imprint on French art was brief but indelible.

The Nabis disbanded around 1900, and Bonnard would spend the next forty-seven years searching for the right expression as a painter. His trajectory into the twentieth century would parallel that of emerging modernism. Fauvism, Cubism, Surrealism, and even Conceptualism were crafting the language of a whole new master narrative, one that would forever revolutionize the aesthetics of French painting. In the ferment of Parisian art circles, Pablo Picasso would have the most resonant voice. No other artist would have such a profound influence on the course of modernism. Picasso was the measure by which contemporary critics gauged an ever-changing cultural climate. His narrative paintings pulsed with political symbolism. Picasso was deeply engaged in contemporary life, and his paintings gave piercing expression to his self-anointed role as a crusading force against fascism. Guernica embodied his repugnance of Spain's Franco and the devastations of war. And while Picasso was readying his masterpiece for exhibition in the Spanish Pavilion of the 1937 Exposition Universelle in Paris, Pierre Bonnard was quietly exploring the mysteries of layering color pigments on canvas as a metaphor for his sensations. For Bonnard, the act of painting was an investigation—the investigation of the physical substance of paint, the visual rhymes echoing throughout the canvas, the dialogue of color notes. These formal considerations set him apart from the conceptual art of his French contemporaries. Picasso famously called Bonnard's painted palette "a potpourri of indecision." In fact, that palette was anything but an arbitrary assemblage of hues on canvas. The tension of brushwork that animates Bonnard's paintings, especially the late work, is precisely due to carefully considered color relationships throughout the canvas rectangle. Those relationships probe color as it translates light, and light as it transforms color. Color and its infinite relationships become the metaphor for Bonnard's experience of his subject.

In Bonnard's late interiors, we discover a universe of familiar rooms, objects, and models. Bonnard explicitly admitted that he could only paint the familiar. The rituals of daily life—taking tea, feeding the cat, tending to the dinner table—were his subjects. One might imagine the artist positioning his easel in the very rooms echoed in the canvases; one might assume that he worked from life, and that he set the stage for his table props and figures. But, in fact, Bonnard had a very different approach. His interiors began as small drawings and watercolors, the drawings made on the pages of tiny diaries, the watercolors worked up in the studio, often with the aid of pencil and gouache. The paintings developed slowly over time. Only when he felt a deep familiarity with his subject—be it a human model or a modest household jug—did he feel ready to paint it. The terracotta jug in Breakfast (ca. 1930; private collection) may have been resting on the shelf in the next room, readily available for study, but for Bonnard it was more useful as etched in memory. Rather than the object itself, it is the memory of the object that Bonnard captures. Asked if he might consider adding a specific object to his carefully circumscribed still-life repertoire, he demurred, saying, "I haven't lived with that long enough to paint it."

Bonnard lived into his eightieth year, spending time increasingly at Le Bosquet, his small house in Le Cannet overlooking the Mediterranean. The downstairs dining room and the upstairs sitting room provide the constructs for some of his finest interiors and still lifes, such as Corner of the Dining Room at Le Cannet (1932; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris), The White Interior (1932; Musée de Grenoble), and The French Window (1932; private collection), much as the claw-footed tub provides a context for the iconic pictures of Marthe at her bath. It may seem paradoxical that imagery so close at hand was never directly painted from observation. Yet while Bonnard may not have chosen to paint at the dining room table—so clearly identified in The Dessert (1940; Beyeler Collection, Basel) by its half-red, half-white covering—his studio, after all, was just up the stairs. And while that studio may have been where Bonnard kept his paints and brushes, where he tacked his canvases to the wall, and where he retreated from the world, it was not in the studio that he found his source of inspiration. That was left to the rooms of Le Bosquet, to the daily rituals of breakfast and tea, to the comfort of seeing Marthe feeding the cat. In the familiar, Bonnard discovered infinite possibilities.

At first glance, Bonnard's late interiors give the impression of contentment and prosperity. Tables abundantly laid with fruit and cheese, glinting silverware, and glazed porcelain suggest domestic ease. More careful scrutiny, however, suggests a disquiet aspect: the human presence or absence. In Before Dinner (1975.1.156), the models are disengaged from each other and do not participate in the evening ritual. The meal is served, but no one takes up the narrative. The figures, though physically present, are emotionally absent. In later paintings, figures become peripheral, even spectral, lacking corporeality. Some disappear off the picture plane, as in Dining Room Overlooking the Garden (The Breakfast Room) (1930–31; The Museum of Modern Art, New York). In Corner of the Dining Room at Le Cannet, the woman's fringed shawl is a colorful point of reference in the red-orange interior, more effective as an arresting concentration of Naples yellow than as a reflection of its wearer. In the end, the dialogue in Bonnard's paintings is not a dialogue between people. It is a conversation between objects, colors, and the geometry of interiors, between bursts of light and their attendant hues, between those who are present and those who are absent.

It is only after looking at the late interiors for some time that one begins to recognize their uncanny relatedness. The table laid with baskets and plates of fresh fruit in The Dessert is the same table seen in Corner of the Dining Room at Le Cannet, here bathed in saffron light, transformed by the palette into a field of warm yellow hues. The color white is a foil for the unfolding color spectrum in The French Window. It is light that radiates color and draws the eye from one passage to another. Although throughout his life, Bonnard spoke of trying to understand the secret of white, it is yellow—for Bonnard, the color of light—that pervades the late paintings. And it was yellow that he associated with his deceased model and mistress Renée Monchaty. In 1921, before Bonnard and Marthe were married, he started a painting, Young Women in the Garden (ca. 1921–23, reworked 1945–46; private collection), using Renée and Marthe as models. Four years later, Bonnard and Marthe were married; Renée committed suicide. Bonnard abandoned the picture for twenty-two years. He would return to it only after Marthe's death, when he added the brilliant yellow ground, gilding the canvas in memoriam.

One could argue that, for Bonnard, color and its color harmonies become the overriding metaphor for the expression of his experience. Color in his late painting transcends descriptive content; it moves well away from the local color of a Cézanne still life, for example. In the late masterpieces, color becomes the subject, the vehicle of light, and the means by which we enter the paintings with our eyes. Using hot and cold hues, Bonnard guides the eye, very deliberately, on an adventure through the positive and negative spaces of his complex canvases. One cannot stress enough the importance Bonnard gave to finding the image in paint and to finding the boundaries of his rectangle.

Dita Amory
Robert Lehman Collection, The Metropolitan Museum of Art





Bonnard: Drawing Color, Painting Light
By Graham Nickson
www.artcritical.com

This essay is posted on the occasion of Pierre Bonnard: The Late Interiors at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, January 27 to April 19, 2009, and continues a series at artcritical of significant statements by distinguished living artists on historic forebears that relate to current exhibitions. The text here is a version of comments delivered by Nickson as part of a panel discussion about Bonnard which he moderated at the New York Studio School (where he is Dean) on Tuesday, February 18th. Nickson's guests on the panel were Svetlana Alpers, Jack Flam and Richard Kendall.

A consummate painter, Bonnard's painterly surfaces appear to breath color. They inhale and exhale color-spaces, made by a remarkable range of thick or thin, fat or lean, brushed or wiped marks on white, oil-primed unstretched canvas that needed the resistance of a solid wall behind it. This approach to the variety and diversity of his paint marks can be found in his range of marks drawn in his small works on paper.

Surprisingly, Bonnard's whole enterprise is dependent on its beginning: specifically, the graphic translation of his "first" possession of a moment, a moment both poignant to him as being a potential painting, and a personal incident or experience.

It is in these small drawings that Bonnard commits to paper his obsession with content and color through a myriad of diverse marks. His hand was observed to move rapidly over the surface of drawing paper, the small stub of a soft pencil hidden by his large hands. It was as though his pencil's point was his eye taking in the significant data. These small drawings allowed access to spaces where it would have been almost impossible to take an easel and canvas, namely those tight spaces of his Le Cannet bathroom, bedroom, dining room, or balcony. The paintings that depict these spaces are made credible by his physical presence squeezed up against a wall or door, or even in the bathtub itself. It is when we think about our own space as viewer in his paintings that we are rewarded with a surprise of location.

There is a sense of the picture plane, beginning on the bridge of our nose, much in the way reading glasses change the way we see, resting on the nose, looking over, looking through and looking at our own nose itself. Could it be that Bonnard's pince-nez triggered this vision?

In the in-focus, out-of-focus drawings and paintings of Bonnard, the deep space is flattened, near forms are volumetric, and the negative spaces operate as both flat and spatial simultaneously. All this is made more apparent through the possible subtle use of his eye-glasses shifting positions.

It is with a single adjustment of his spectacle frames that he could see, say, a bunch of grapes, flattened and unified, and then, conversely, volumetric and spatial, with the individual grapes revealed, and the apex of the nearest grape to the painter's eye defined.

A consummate painter, Bonnard's painterly surfaces appear to breath color. They inhale and exhale color-spaces, made by a remarkable range of thick or thin, fat or lean, brushed or wiped marks on white, oil-primed unstretched canvas that needed the resistance of a solid wall behind it. This approach to the variety and diversity of his paint marks can be found in his range of marks drawn in his small works on paper.

Surprisingly, Bonnard's whole enterprise is dependent on its beginning: specifically, the graphic translation of his "first" possession of a moment, a moment both poignant to him as being a potential painting, and a personal incident or experience.

It is in these small drawings that Bonnard commits to paper his obsession with content and color through a myriad of diverse marks. His hand was observed to move rapidly over the surface of drawing paper, the small stub of a soft pencil hidden by his large hands. It was as though his pencil's point was his eye taking in the significant data. These small drawings allowed access to spaces where it would have been almost impossible to take an easel and canvas, namely those tight spaces of his Le Cannet bathroom, bedroom, dining room, or balcony. The paintings that depict these spaces are made credible by his physical presence squeezed up against a wall or door, or even in the bathtub itself. It is when we think about our own space as viewer in his paintings that we are rewarded with a surprise of location.

There is a sense of the picture plane, beginning on the bridge of our nose, much in the way reading glasses change the way we see, resting on the nose, looking over, looking through and looking at our own nose itself. Could it be that Bonnard's pince-nez triggered this vision?

In the in-focus, out-of-focus drawings and paintings of Bonnard, the deep space is flattened, near forms are volumetric, and the negative spaces operate as both flat and spatial simultaneously. All this is made more apparent through the possible subtle use of his eye-glasses shifting positions.

It is with a single adjustment of his spectacle frames that he could see, say, a bunch of grapes, flattened and unified, and then, conversely, volumetric and spatial, with the individual grapes revealed, and the apex of the nearest grape to the painter's eye defined.

In the in-focus, out-of-focus drawings and paintings of Bonnard, the deep space is flattened, near forms are volumetric, and the negative spaces operate as both flat and spatial simultaneously. All this is made more apparent through the possible subtle use of his eye-glasses shifting positions.

It is with a single adjustment of his spectacle frames that he could see, say, a bunch of grapes, flattened and unified, and then, conversely, volumetric and spatial, with the individual grapes revealed, and the apex of the nearest grape to the painter's eye defined.

Human monocular and bifocal vision is very different to the action of the camera lens. In fact, Bonnard's paintings get much more complex spatially when he gives up using the camera around 1920, and relies more and more on his drawings as the wellspring for his ideas and images. Bonnard states: "The lens records unnecessary lights and shadows, (whereas) the artist's eye adds human value to objects."

By committing facts to a small paper rectangle, rather than to a medium canvas as others have done, he was able to successfully use multiple, yet subtle, viewpoint shifts and adjustments by moving his head slightly and keeping his periphery in reserve whilst tackling the centers of his vision. He avoids, however, the fish-eye lens distortion by using a conceptual "imaginary grid" held somewhere in the area of entry into the nearest space into the painting or drawing.

In many works we have a strong feeling that we are "in" the space of the represented image. That nearness is a very strong element in a lot of the work. We are taking tea with Marthe, we are passing the cream to her, we are taking the bread roll from the basket, an apple from the compotier. Even in the self-portrait we are rinsing the safety razor. In "Young Woman in the Garden," (1921-23, 1945-46, Private Collection) we are looking down on Renee Monchaty upon being introduced to her at the garden table. We experience the "frisson" of a significant encounter.

Bonnard kept his drawings close to him, and rarely let any out his studio. They were the key to his paintings. It is surprising how close some of the drawings are to the actual larger works, given the fact that he was exploring the size and dimensions of the rectangle, with the stretchers made only later, when the final size of the canvas had been determined by trial and error.

It is in the later drawings that we see him using an innovative lexicon of marks, which are made up of loops, squiggles, spirals, dots, dashes, ticks, circles, crosses, zeds and horizontals, diagonals, and vertical variants. These variable marks constitute a language for him to "speak" to the image and color. In the rarest of circumstances, black and white can suggest or imply color. One thinks of certain Van Gogh drawings for example, where the intensity of the black against the white has a color potential. If we look at a lot of Bonnard's later drawings, the landscapes in particular, we feel the potential of these marks as metaphoric of certain color. Most importantly, the marks held information for Bonnard. The drawings carry form and space, a sense of scale, and of course, image. Bonnard would use an eraser to add to the confection of space opening up forms. Often, the drawings have a density of application and a highly charged intensity of feeling. Nearly always the late drawings have context — that is, a subject of enquiry and its context relative to its environs. The marks also have a different pace of viewing; certain marks make us speed up while others slow us down and, as we travel in the boundaries of the drawing, we exercise our visual understanding.

It is clear that these working drawings could be used over a long period of time. People don't age in drawings. Fruit doesn't rot. Flowers don't wilt. Bonnard constantly refers to these drawings "to avoid going off-track when executing the work itself" (Joëts)

For Bonnard drawing was sensation, and taking possession of the image. The next step was the translation of these notations into color, not local color, but the color that came from his interior logic. The sensation and its perceptual basis change mysteriously into the concept or the idea of color.

This process is continued like a board game, with Bonnard playing both sides: Color A countering the thrust of color Z, etc. Color chess with the board itself, like an invisible grid, functioning to keep the wildest of moves in relation to the rectangle. The painting uses localized color as a springboard to a far more unique and surprising equivalent. Reflected color often plays a significant role. It is the color in the shadows, rather than the color in the light that depicts Bonnard's highly original color variants and ensembles.

For the colorist, often the great challenge (much like the great comedic actor wanting to play a great role of tragedy, Chaplin playing Hamlet, so to speak!) is to make both black and white operate on a color level. Both famously banned from palettes new and old, the risk is persuasive. Bonnard's constant range of meanings allows us to consider his successful use of both black and white in the The White Interior (1932) and The French Window (1932,). His desire for black and white surrounded by rich color is documented. The white and black frequently resound against saturated cadmium reds and apricot yellows, sapphire blues and viridian greens. One can also think of the symbolic nature of both black and white: white, the metaphor for the origins of the work, the paper, the canvas ground, or primed support; black, the instrument of decision, the color associated with drawing, the color of ink, charcoal and graphite.

In The French Window, we are witnessing a representation of the entire process of the act of creation of the idea as well as seeing the completed painting, all in one work. It is a revealing and great work of Bonnard, and to see it helps us to understand his quest. We see Bonnard experiencing for the first time his sensation, conceiving the first idea of the painting as image whilst looking at his model, Marthe. She is opposite him, the back of her head towards us, her face being viewed by the artist, who is probably drawing her at that moment on a small piece of paper, all of this takes place in the mirror, whilst we the viewers also see Marthe in front of the mirror as Bonnard would have seen her in front of him, intensely absorbed in a specific act of mixing or stirring a bowl tilted in front of her. In the painting, the clarity of the figure of Marthe is noticeably particular and detailed. It is only after carefully observing the "final" marks describing Marthe looking at the bowl (and looking inward at the same time, reflecting whilst being reflected) and describing the vitality of her hands grasping the bowl and mixing the ingredients that we realize their source – pencil incisions, scratched and etched into the paint. Defining the head's expression and tilt, Bonnard uses the graphite and charcoal along with the pigments of color. We find charcoal again amidst colored oils in "The White Interior," a painting with a myriad of different whites, and a multitude of spaces, and a floor mysteriously turning into a crouching figure. Bonnard uses charcoal marks as final marks in and on top of the paint film to modify and control the flow of space.

It is with these simple actions that Bonnard reveals his philosophy. In Self-Portrait (1938-40) the left spectacle lens has a small, very powerful negative shape of light isolated by the frame of the glasses. Bonnard's eye literally views light in a ying-yang, color-chiaroscuro confrontation. Next to this is a barely perceptible, yet significant, sharp mark of depiction of the spectacle frame's edge – it is a pencil mark embodied in the paint.

It is as if in the long process of making the work, Bonnard cannot help reminding us of the origins of its conception. He turns this simple act of drawing on the surface of the color into a realization of the synergy of the painting's being, both conceived and closed by drawing. Yet, it is his highly inventive drawing marks, made on the brink of creation of his idea and transformed into his own original color, that allow Bonnard to let his own light enter our space.

Biography

Pierre Bonnard {baw-nar'}, b. Oct. 3, 1867, d. Jan. 23, 1947, began his long painting career in Paris in the early 1890s. He was one of the first artists to use pure color in flat patterns enlivened by decorative linear arabesques in paintings, posters, and designs for stained-glass windows and books. Together with his friend Edouard Vuillard and the other members of the group known as the Nabis (Hebrew for "prophets"), he helped establish a new, modern style of decoration that was important for the emergence of Art Nouveau in the late 1890s.

The paintings of Paul Gauguin and Claude Monet done in the late 1880s were the principal source for the new style of the Nabis. Bonnard, "the very Japanese Nabi," also drew on Japanese prints for his striking simplifications of form and his bold use of bright colors. In 1894, however, he turned to more somber colors and restricted his subject matter to intimate views of domestic life. When, around 1900, he again began to use bright hues, he adopted the impressionist broken brushstroke and abandoned the linear configurations of his earlier work.

Throughout the remainder of his career, Bonnard continued and expanded the impressionists' concern for depicting the personal environment of the artist. His naturalism, however, was merely a starting point for striking innovations in color and the construction of perspective. After 1920 intense colors dissolve forms yet celebrate the painter's sensuous delight in the lush southern French landscape and, above all, the beauty of the female nude.

Bonnard's entire stylistic evolution offers a transition from impressionism to a coloristic, abstract art. Critics now recognize the importance of Bonnard's contribution to the development of abstraction. During his lifetime, however, they often found his work old-fashioned, because of his commitment to figuration and the narrow scope of his themes. Dining Room on the Garden (1934-35; Guggenheim Museum, New York) is an excellent example of Bonnard's late style.

www.discoverfrance.net

CV

born
1867 Fontenay-aux-Roses, France
1947 Le Cannet. France

education
1888 Ecolé de Droit graduated and became a barrister
1887 Acadèmie Julian, Paris

works in most museum collections including
Art Institute of Chicago, IL
Dallas Museum of Art, TX
Guggenheim Museum, New York
Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC
J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles CA
Louvre Museum, Paris, France
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
Museum of Modern Art, New York
National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Neue Pinakothek, Munich, Germany
Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, CA
Phillips Collection, Washington DC

Reviews

The New Republic, 2009
by Jed Perl

"Bonnard is the most thoroughly idiosyncratic of all the great twentieth-century painters. What sustains him is not traditional ideas of pictorial structure and order, but rather some unique combination of visual taste, psychological insight, and poetic feeling. He also has a quality that might be characterized as perceptual wit—an instinct for what will work in a painting. Almost invariably he recognizes the precise point where his voluptuousness may be getting out of hand, where he needs to introduce an ironic note. Bonnard's wit has everything to do with the eccentric nature of his compositions. He finds it funny to sneak a figure into a corner, or have a cat staring out at the viewer. His metaphoric caprices have a comic edge, as when he turns a figure into a pattern in the wallpaper. And when he imagines a basket of fruit as a heap of emeralds and rubies and diamonds, he does so with the panache of a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat."

Bibliography

Dita Amory. Pierre Bonnard: The Late Still Lifes and Interiors. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Colta Ives Helen Giambruni, Sasha M Newman. PIERRE BONNARD: The Graphic Arts, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, 1990

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catalogues raisonné
Dauberville, Jean. Pierre Bonnard: Catalogue Raisonne de L'Oeuvre Peint I: 1888-1905. Editions J. et H. Baernheim-Jeune, 1965






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