09 October 2014

Pierre Bonnard: Painter Of The Future

“But the painter of the future will be a colorist such as has never yet existed.” - Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo in a letter dated 5 May 1888.

“Society was ready to welcome Cubism and Surrealism before we had reached our objective.  We found ourselves in some sense suspended in air.” – Pierre Bonnard

The mimosa is a sensitive plant; it droops when touched. So, by most accounts, was Marthe de Meligny (1869-1942), for thirty years the mistress and then for twenty years more the wife of French artist Pierre Bonnard. If we have learned anything in these recent decades of re-examining the place of women in the history of art, we should be skeptical about the role assigned to the wife of a male artist.   

Marthe, Bonnard's favorite model, appears in Woman With Mimosa (above).  A lovely example of a hybrid genre Bonnard seems to have created, the painting is neither a portrait or a still life. On the Cote d'Azur where Pierre and Marthe lived, the mimosa blooms in January and here it frames the her face with Bonnard's favorite color, Naples yellow.  I do not want to characterize her expression, although male critics have been fearless in this regard. The averted gaze of a woman or, in the paintings of Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershoi the turned back, is seen as a problem requiring a solution.  It is worth noting at this point that, in his paintings and even more remarkably in his photographs of Marthe, even when nude, Bonnard conveys her sensuality with discretion.  Unlike, say, the nudes of his contemporary Edgar Degas, Bonnard's never seem a violation of privacy.  The pensive, sidelong gazes of many figures in Bonnard's work reminded the artist's  great-nephew Michel Terrasse of  Giotto's profiles or the enigmatic faces of figures in medieval frescoes.

The story of modernism made no room for Bonnard.  Bonnard's work can be difficult to pigeonhole, an annoyance to art historians who like their artists neat.   He experimented with light but he was no Impressionist.   Bonnard rarely painted outdoors, saying “It’s not possible; the light changes too quickly.”    He preferred to rely on drawings as aides memoires to locate what he called the 'idea' or the 'seduction' for each picture, the painterly equivalent of the donnee for the author Henry James.  Although his work is well known, Pierre Bonnard remains elusive.  There is as yet no Bonnard biography and writers of  monographs and museum catalogs  continue to  recycle anecdotes of doubtful accuracy.
It did not help Bonnard’s reputation that Pablo Picasso, his contemporary and a commanding presence in 20th century art, mocked Bonnard’s paintings publicly and encouraged his supporters to do the same.  Henri Matisse, who had become close to Bonnard  in their later years in southern France, was stung into an angry defense when one such article appeared in Cahiers d’Art shortly after Bonnard's death in 1947.  “ I cannot understand why you went after Bonnard.  I know Bonnard.  I have been watching him for half a century. I was never able to discover the depths of his expression even though it is constructed from materials I know well.”  

Born at Fontenay-aux-Roses, surely the most evocatively named of Parisian suburbs, Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) studied art at the Academie Julian in Paris.  There he mat Marie, who went by the name Marthe in 1893. 

"There is always color, it has yet to become light." - Pierre Bonnard

The couple began to winter in Provence in 1914, and its effect on Bonnard's use of color was emphatic; it has been compared to the heavenly light in Renaissance  religious painting.  Bonnard found a house at Le Cannet in 1922 and by 1926, he had saved enough money to purchase it.  He christened the house Le Bosquet and painted the exterior stucco in pink. 

Several room  he painted in Naples yellow, a shade that appears to capture the moving sun in paint.  “I don't like to paint in grand rooms; they intimidate me.  My luxury is my painting.”  This from the artist who pinned his canvases to the walls of his studio.  “It would bother me if my canvases were stretched onto a frame.”  That way he could allow  himself to discover  its finished size.
The colors of the mimosa, the eucalyptus, and the olive tress in the garden at Le Bosquet are all present in The Dining Room Overlooking the Garden, a correlation with Bonnard's idea that we take in a scene all at once when we first look at a painting.
"Art is not nature.  There is also much more to be had from color as a means of expression." - P.B.

That "more" includes the painting of light so that it seems to emanate from within the canvas.  In this,  the American painter Mark Rothko would seem an heir to Bonnard.  Also, to Rothko, as to Bonnard, paintings were meant for quiet contemplation.  This is what Bonnard had in mind when he said, "The museums are full of uprooted paintings," an assessment that Andre Malraux explore at length in his  'Museum without Walls ' in The Voices of Silence.

For further reading:
1. Bonnard at Le Cannet by Michel Terrasse, translated from the French by Sebastian Wormell, New York, Thames & Hudson: 1993.
2. Bonnard by Julian Bell, London, Phaidon Press: 1994.
3. Bonnard: Shimmering Color by Michel Terrasse, translated from the French by Laurel Hirsch, New York, Harry N. Abrams: 1999.

1. Pierre Bonnard - Woman With Mimosa, 1924, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.
2. Pierre Bonnard -  Nude Dressing, 1925, Galerie Krugier & Cie, Geneva.
3. Pierre Bonnard - Dining Room Overlooking the Garden, c. 1930, Museum of Modern Art, NYC.
4. Pierre Bonnard  - The White Interior, 1932, Musee de Grenoble.
5. Mark Rothko - untitled , 1968, Fondation Beyeler, Basel.


Tania said...

One of my favorite painters! Bonnard has now his museum in Le Cannet. You can also walk in the district where he lived, but of the street we see almost nothing of his house in the vegetation, still occupied by his descendants (no visit).
Thank you for the beautiful illustrations!

Jane said...

Tania, you are fortunate to have been to Le Cannet. How odd that you visited this famous home that you could not visit and you also live near the Palais Stoclet which is not open to the public. It's painful when you love art.
I read that at one point after Bonnard died, there was a chance that so much vegetation would be removed for new building that the view would be spoiled.