Pierre Bonnard. Painting Arcadia
A [italiquenoir]very Japanese Nabi [/italiquenoir]
A very Japanese Nabi
Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) belongs to a generation of artists who followed on from Impressionism, without ever having experienced it. His inspiration came from Gauguin and his passion was for Japanese prints, which he discovered at an exhibition held at the Paris School of Fine Arts in the spring of 1890.
Throughout this decade, he developed a predominantly decorative style in which patterns fit and fold together in a complex network of swirling lines and patches of bright colour. The flat perspective thrusts shapes to the surface, levelling out all the planes. This synthetic vision and the vertical format of his decorative panels reminiscent of kakemonos hanging scrolls earned him the nickname “a very Japanese Nabi” (Félix Fénéon).
Bonnard formed the Nabi group, an aesthetic avant-garde movement with Symbolist leanings, with his friends from the Académie Julian – Maurice Denis, Edouard Vuillard, Paul Sérusier, Paul Ranson, and Gabriel Ibels. His favourite subjects are drawn from his private life and the contemporary world and the characteristic elegance, vitality, charm, deftness and humour of his paintings are expressed with equal intensity in small formats and large-scale works, such as the four panels on the theme of apple-picking brought together for the first time in this exhibition.
Unleashing the unexpected
Unleashing the unexpected
Bonnard’s imaginative approach and his reluctance to be confined by any system add an enigmatic element to his painting; the presence of incongruous elements and fleeting apparitions heightens the sense of mystery surrounding his subject matter. Thus the pipe placed in the foreground of the painting entitled Intimacy is almost invisible as the spirals of smoke rising from it merge with the pattern on the wallpaper. This quirkiness arises from the blurring of spatial reference points, exemplified in the dizzying vision of his Dancers onstage at the Paris Opera, captured from a high vantage point.
Bonnard's paintings offer a radical transcription of the spectacle of contemporary life. He pokes fun at the mechanical gait of people moving past the lake in the Bois de Boulogne with its backdrop of regularly aligned trees, as if on a conveyor belt, by depicting two little dogs frolicking in the foreground. This contrast unleashes the element of the unexpected in this scene with deftly mastered humour.
The artist’s propensity for orchestrating a scenario for his subjects allows him to express the unconscious and his hidden desires, which hover just beneath the surface in diffuse forms. His fantasies become a reality in the phantasmagorical tracery of Woman Dozing on a Bed with its disturbing figure sat in the foreground and chimerical animal picked out in the folds of the sheet.
A secret and complex Bonnard emerges from these unconventional elements. The artist, who was a close friend of Alfred Jarry, retained the lifelong critical distance and subtle humour of a pataphysicien.
Pompous theories and subjects were inimical to Bonnard and he developed an interest in the theme of intimacy in the early 1890s, probably under the influence of Vuillard. His interiors, with or without figures, do not depict extraordinary scenes, but reflect psychological or sentimental situations such as maternal tenderness, solitude, the impossibility of human communication, and eroticism.
Artificial light and framing techniques reinforce the sensation that the figures are imprisoned. The protagonists in these confined settings – often modelled by family members – resemble the shadowy, enigmatic creatures in Maeterlinck’s Symbolist plays, with which Bonnard was familiar.
Bonnard devises sophisticated arrangements to depict the dizzying swirl of thought and the senses, such as the screen separating the lovers – Marthe and himself – in Man and Woman.
In spatial terms, his point of view is often mobile, shifting between high and low angles, all the better to catch his model by surprise. The interplay of mirrors in the accomplished composition The Fireplace refers to the enigma of the gaze. Who is looking at whom? The model is staring at her reflection in the mirror and at the reflection of her own reflection in a mirror positioned behind her. The spectator watches the two of them and ponders on the painting in the background. The large, flowing, recumbent nude by Maurice Denis, whose whereabouts is now unknown, provides a contrast to the sculptural bust of Lucienne Dupuy de Frenelle, with whom Bonnard was in love.
A Story of Water
A Story of Water
Many of Bonnard's paintings draw the viewer into the realm of the bathroom, to capture the relaxed, natural scene of a woman washing and also the complicity between painter and model. Every aspect of the decor plays a part in eroticising these rituals, which are framed to partially reveal or hide the naked body in order to fan the flames of desire. Wallpaper in warm hues, tiles, rugs, accessories, mirrors, and curtains filtering the light, all envelop the woman in a vibrant aura.
The model for most of these nudes was Bonnard's partner Marthe, but the identity of his other models has little bearing on the works as they embody a feminine ideal in his painting: slim, pearly-skinned, pert-breasted and faceless.
The artist married Marthe in August 1925 and his mistress, Renée Monchaty, committed suicide a few weeks later. He began a series of nudes in the bathtub depicting a passive, horizontal body viewed from above through the transparent water. The space is transfigured by the shimmering colours and light. Planes and materials merge into one. This magnificent display, in a humble bathroom transformed into a palace from The Arabian Nights, only partially mitigates the air of ambiguity which these scenes exude.
The click of the shutter
The click of the shutter
Bonnard began taking photographs in the early 1890s, when he purchased an easy-to-use Kodak-Pocket camera. His early photographs capture everyday moments in family life and were merely intended for the family album.
The photos show his sister, Andrée, his brother-in-law the musician Claude Terrasse – a very tall man with a thick head of curly hair – and Bonnard’s five nephews, whom he adored. Summer holidays at the family property in Grand-Lemps in the Dauphiné region provided ample opportunity for capturing scenes of bathing, games and walks on film.
These sentimental snaps nevertheless yielded useful documentary material for Bonnard’s painting, providing him with models in candid shots or studied poses. He photographed Marthe naked indoors, and outdoors in the greenery of the garden in Montval. These photographs, taken over two sessions, have since become famous. Less well known are the nude photographs of Bonnard taken by Marthe in the same setting during the period when he was working on illustrations for Daphnis and Chloe, a Greek pastoral by Longus, in which Arcadia was transposed to the area around Paris.
Although Bonnard brought photographs back from his trips to Venice and Spain, they mostly depict his companions, Vuillard and the Bibesco brothers, rather than the remarkable sites which they visited together. Photography remained for him a practice predominantly associated with the emotional side of his life.
Portraits of Bonnard’s family and self-portraits reveal an unexpected side to the man. These paintings contain a blend of observation and subjectivity, accurate likenesses and distortions, ordinariness and aesthetic enhancement.
The self-portraits which he painted just for himself are the most intense. Bonnard represents himself in three-quarter view or full face, against the light, his face taut and his fists clenched, with a sad or anxious expression. A golden light haloes a physique reminiscent of a boxer or Eastern wise man.
He often remained in the background, preferring to observe the world around him. Portraits of his sister Andrée, his brother-in-law the musician Claude Terrasse – with whom he worked on Alfred Jarry's Ubu roi – and his nephews, all bear witness to his ability to capture individual likenesses and the liveliness of their little community.
The charming, ridiculous, stiff or vulnerable people depicted by Bonnard in his portraits are often captured at a critical moment in their lives, such as Misia and Thadée Natanson during their divorce, for example. The same tension is apparent in the juxtaposition of the tête-à-tête between Bonnard’s blonde mistress Renée Monchaty and Marthe, whose face is depicted in profile merging into the shadows (Young Women in the Garden). Portraits of his friends and art dealers, Josse and Gaston Bernheim, are also suffused with a similar unease.
The wild garden: Bonnard in Normandy
The wild garden: Bonnard in Normandy
After several trips to Normandy, Bonnard bought a little house on stilts in Vernonnet in the Seine valley in August 1912. He christened this hideaway nestling between the sky and river “Ma Roulotte” (My Caravan) and its panoramic view disappearing into the distance fired his imagination. The light saturated with fine particles of water vapour created a hazy vision of the greenery and different planes stretching out towards the horizon.
Bonnard framed his landscapes from the balcony at the front of his house or from his studio looking out over his “wild garden” which sloped steeply down to the river. From this vantage point, all the hues of the plants merge into a colourful tapestry and the figures set against this backdrop seem to be suspended surreally in time and space, as is the case with the hieratic figure of Marthe depicted as Pomona, fruit in hand, in The Terrace at Vernonnet.
When staying at “Ma Roulotte”, Bonnard frequently visited Monet in Giverny, very close to Vernon. Although Bonnard’s garden bore little resemblance to the garden of the master of Impressionism, which was constructed like a work of art, the two artists’ discussions encouraged Bonnard to break free from Naturalism and develop a poetic interpretation of nature.
In June and July 1909, Bonnard made his first extended trip to Saint-Tropez, at the invitation of the painter Henri Manguin, a friend of Signac, Cross and Matisse. In a letter to his mother, he described how he had an “Arabian Nights experience”, dazzled by “the sea, yellow walls, and reflections as colourful as the lights themselves”.
The hedonistic ambience of the French Riviera, reminiscent of the Classical ideal of Arcadia, was a paradise for painters. Bonnard returned there almost every year, renting villas in Grasse, Saint-Tropez, Cannes and Le Cannet, before buying a little house which he called “Le Bosquet”, located above Le Cannet, with a panoramic vista of the bay.
The broad framing technique of his large landscapes transforms their perspective by scattering the planes in order to reproduce all points of view on a single surface. These “adventures with the optic nerve”, translated onto canvas by Bonnard, add a hint of the surreal, as time appears to be suspended. It comes as no surprise to see goddesses, nymphs and fauns populating them.
Bonnard's compositions painted in the south of France are adorned with every shade of yellow. It pervades interiors, walls, accessories and baskets of fruit. Their vibrancy reaches its peak with the flowering mimosa outside the bay window of his studio. This effervescent solar colour contrasts with the iridescence of an intense blue verging on ultraviolet.
[italiquenoir]Et in Arcadia ego[/italiquenoir]
Et in Arcadia ego
As a young man, Bonnard established his reputation as a painter of decorative schemes, producing large-format panels designed as murals. As he grew older, the commissions flooded in. From 1906 to 1910, he painted monumental canvases to decorate the dining room walls of his friend Misia’s apartment. These panels, for which no theme had been specified, depict scenes from paradise, combining contemporary figures and Classical or imaginary creatures in idealised landscapes.
These decorative schemes, designed to blend in with the architecture of a building and the personality of the person who commissioned them, are painted in an innovative style in which Bonnard reaffirms the unity of the subject matter within its own spatial discontinuity. This is evident in the triptych The Mediterranean, commissioned by the Russian collector Ivan Morozov. He also created a group of panels comprising unrelated and anachronistic objects for his art dealers Josse and Gaston Bernheim.
A single unifying theme runs through Bonnard's major decorative schemes, some of the most beautiful examples of which are exhibited here. They radiate the peaceful, harmonious happiness of a man immersed in nature. Urban subjects, such as the panels for George Besson (Le café Le petit Pouce, La Place Clichy), also convey this optimistic vision of the world. Bonnard's monumental Arcadia celebrates a philosophical joie de vivre occasionally tinged with existential angst. There are shades of Poussin's painting depicting Virgil's shepherds and featuring the words Et in Arcadia ego. Death exists even in Arcadia.