Pierre Bonnard: A Colourful Enchanter
Bonnard (1867 – 1947) has been criticised for painting only for the pleasure of the eyes and his tableaux just nice to look at. These critics are not completely wrong about their appeal, but a more attentive examination of Bonnard’s work will lead to surprisingly deeper discoveries. Where his colours are blamed for keeping his canvas shallow, colour actually was the artist’s concern throughout his life, until he reached an excellence that made him one of the greatest colourists of Modern art.
The execution of the French painter’s work looks easy and merely decorative, but with scrutiny the effect of the short, complex touches has depth and sensitivity, bordering on the spiritual, and the luminosity gives vitality and life, allure and enchantment. He reached the stage of simplifying forms and eliminating details, which he regarded as distracting. He elevated the common daily activities, like picking apples, to a gesture of uniting man and nature; not seeing beyond the beautiful colours is to miss on the essence.
In the early 1890s, Bonnard founded with a group of artists who studied together in art school the ‘Nabis’, which became an avant-garde post-impressionist movement. These rebellious artists worked mainly on intimate domestic scenes and colourful and decorative compositions. They were greatly influenced by Paul Gauguin and his strong colours. The ‘Nabis’, Arabic and Hebrew for prophets, idealised daily activities and wanted to liberate art from the realism of Impressionism, favouring emotion over observation, giving their work a spiritual penchant.
The ‘Nabis’ had a short life and broke up around 1900, as the movement seemed to be going against the Modernist current that was led by Pablo Picasso with his narrative paintings, his political symbolism and his involvement in the war and the events surrounding him. The Modern movement, including Abstract Art, Expressionism, Cubism and Fauvism, made the ‘Nabis’ seem conservative and not with the times.
After the dismemberment of the ‘Nabis’, Bonnard passed through a period of searching. Through colour, he tried to express his ideas and started a dialogue between colour and light, which became his metaphor. He painted elusive characters that were lonely, ill at ease or unable to communicate, yet also showed moments of tenderness and sentimentality, using artificial light, gas lamps and the sun to produce the effect he wanted. His inventiveness also showed in his choice of angles, painting from far or close-ups, from above or looking down. He also used the mirror game where his sitter would be looking at herself in the mirror, showing the reflection of her reflection from a mirror placed behind her.
The intimacy that the artist cherished in his private life extended to include his bathroom series. He created innumerable works with his model and muse Marthe,
who became his wife in 1925 after 30 years together. He painted her in the bathtub, drying herself, scrubbing herself or just looking at herself in the mirror, taken from different angles. The warm colours that Bonnard used in the bathroom paintings gave the model allure and eroticism. Renee Monchati, another mistress and model of Bonnard committed suicide a few weeks after he got married.
Marthe was very present in his work, other than in nude compositions, he painted her seated in the kitchen, setting the table, eating and gardening. He always depicted her as a young woman even when she grew old.
Bonnard’s portraits combine different styles and emotions, and those of his family and friends show love and care while with other people, he could be critical, witty or sarcastic. As for his self-portraits, which were intended for his eyes only, he took liberties like portraying himself as a boxer, in a rage or as a sage, self effacing or self-mocking. He had the talent to depict likeness and see distress, anxiety or discomfort on the faces of his models.
The artist’s landscapes were also intimate, and in later years, were taken from indoor, looking toward the fields or his garden. Some are taken from his dining room of family members, or a view from his studio with mimosa trees in full bloom. These works are blurred to give the impression of dreamy unreality.
Bonnard succeeded in making extraordinary use of colour and light, giving his subjects luminosity. He wrote on his relationship with colour: “There is always colour; it has yet to become light”. This was his goal, especially in his later years, blurring his paintings to distance himself to be, if he wanted, sardonic, witty, dreamy or impersonal.
Bonnard did not paint from life, but made drawings or photographs of his subjects, and did the work in his studio. He needed the memory of the subject and not a direct view, saying that painting from reality distracted him from making the painting an entity on its own.
Although Bonnard avoided public exposure or attention, he sold well during his life. He had an independent nature and while aware of the contemporary movements of the 20th century, his voluptuous colours, and poetic allusions, his independent spirit and his resistance to new currents made him unique among modern artists.
The Terrace at Vernon
The Studio with Memosa
The Boxer (Portrait of the Artist)
Dining Room in the Country