THE SIMPLE SEER: “FIRST” Possession of a Moment

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.” ( Graham Nickson)

Terrace at Vernonnet.1939."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. "

He is one of the century’s great reductionist painters — worthy of comparison to Matisse and Mondrian in taking down Nature to abstracted visual surrogates. While no one would deny Bonnard engages our eye as a fine painter, and our emotions with his domestic hedonism, he also challenges our patience, our sense of proportion, and our historical understanding of modernism.

A modest man with joyous daydreams, Pierre Bonnard( 1867-1947) created an enchanted land where all is light….

Carter B. Horseley:Perhaps the finest painting in the exhibition is the 1931 "Large Yellow Nude," property of a private collection, shown at the left. The catalogue essay entry for this painting compares the nude in the painting to the Medici Venus in the Uffizi in Florence, which is interesting, but certainly that sculpture had nothing to do with the red and white sheet in the foreground, a pyrotechnical tour de force. Bonnard often painted female nudes, usually his wife, Marthe, but this is perhaps the most elegant and alluring even if the modeling of the left arm is a bit awkward. This is a great composition and an even more dazzling painting, one that calls to mind the Rokeby Venus by Velasquez and the Odalisques of Ingres for feminine beauty, but which literally outshines them.

He was born in a suburb of Paris; his father headed a department at the Ministry of War, and Pierre was given the careful secondary education which leads obedient sons to a secure job in the civil service. He successfully passed his baccalaureate examinations and even obtained a diploma in law, although here the first disquieting signs of his deviation appeared: back home after his dayo f study, he frequently sketched the faces of people seen in the Metro, on his way to and from the University. The signs grew more ominous when he failed his cicil service exam: had he passed it, he might have spent his life checking records and statistics.

Bonnard. The French Window. 1932. Graham Nickson: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.

And the scandal broke when the judge who hired him as a clerk, intrigued by the unusual zeal with which he buried himself beneath mountains of legal files, found him drawing and promptly fired him. By then, Bonnard’s mind was made up: he would be a painter. But it was not until his poster for a champagne company gaily splashed the walls of Paris, in 1891, that his father gave in. What motivated Bonnard “pere” to do so was not that Toulouse-Lautrec liked the poster so much that he asked to meet its young author, but the fact that Pierre had been paid all of 100 francs for it.

Avtually, Bonnard had been painting for several years. After attending courses at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and competing-again, praise heaven, unsuccerssfully- for the Prix de Rome, an award given annually to a studious, white collar worker of the brush and easel, he continued his apprenticeship at the Académie Jullian. Instruction there was not any more revolutionary than at the Beaux-Arts, but Bonnard met a handful of contemporaries who were soon to become close friends: Paul Sérusier, Paul Ranson, Maurice Denis, Ker-Xavier Roussel, Edouard Vuillard.

Bonnard. Young Woman in the Garden. 1923. "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."

Still ignorant of the bright universe discovered by the impressionists, they worked ploddingly in the dark, naturalistic style then fashionable, until the day, in 1888, when Sérusier came back from his summer vacation in Pont-Aven and showed his comerades a landscape painted on the back of a cigar box; they at once c

d it “The Talisman,” for they senses that it would change their art forever.

Sérusier had executed it under the guidance of Paul Gauguin, who had asked him,”What color do you see this tree in?” Sérusier: “Yellow”. Gauguin: “in that case use your most beautiful yellow. And how do you see the earth?” Sérusier: “Red” . Gauguin: “So use your most beautiful red.” And so on, until the landscape was finished.

Bonnard. The Bathroom Mirror. 1908." Here, the nude is more voluptuous and Rubenesque than in most of his other nudes. The 1908 picture, however, is more remarkable for its very unusual and effective composition and its very restrained palette. One conjures the great interior scenes of Vermeer and Ter Borch here, but also thinks that this is how Rubens might have dashed off this as a version, or critique, of a Cezanne still life. What is most striking is the clarity and of the reflected image in the mirror and the deep blacks of the chest behind the nude. The reflected image would be a fine painting by itself. Its muted, patterned surroundings cannot engulf it and make it all the more startling. There is a problem, of course. Where is the observer/painter in the reflection? Where is the strong light that illuminates the nude's back coming from and why isn't it casting more light on the vase and bathroom accessories?"

Under this impact , the friends decided to spread Gauguin’s aesthetic gospel of imagination first, relying on pure color, decorative line, and simplified composition; and so they called themselves the Nabis, after the Hebrew word “nebiim” , meaning prophets. They invented a rite and held monthly meetings at which the groups theoreticians, Sérusier and Denis, proffered dogmatic statements such as “Remember that a painting, before being a battle horse, a nude, or some sort of anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.”

Bonnard. Before Dinner. 1924. Nickson: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.

At these meetings Bonnard was invariably present, but at a safe distance. Nothing could be farther from his nature than dogmas of any sort.”There is no rule,” he once said. And indeed, the incredible freshness of his paintings, to the very end, lies in the fact that they seem improvised on the spur of the moment. Bonnard seems to have invented painting anew with every canvas. Never was he tempted like so many of his colleagues, to set down in writing his canons of art; on one occasion when he felt the itch to take up the pen, it was to protest against the countless walls which prevent motoring toursits in France from fully enjoying the sight of the countryside.

Nor could Bonnard, in spite of his sincere respect for his great elders, be an orthodox disciple. The group had chipped in to buy a Gauguin, which each member in turn could take home for a while; but Bonnard invariably forgot or passed up his turn.

Bonnard’s playfulness and his amused, sympathetic attention toward the thousand and one manifestations of everyday life preserved him- as well as his close friend Vuillard- from the idealistic excesses of the other Nabis. Discreetly, quietly, he took Gauguin’s flamboyant advice to throw off the academic yoke and interpret it to suit his own modest needs: play hookey and indulge in that typical Parisian pastime, “flanerie” along the bustling boulevards.

Bonnard. The White Interior.1932." 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."

Bonnard’s best companion, on such accasions, was a short, worn-out pencil with which he sketched on a cheap pad; when without it, he would draw with anything that fell under his hand: a burnt match, a rusty nail, the tip of his finger dipped in a mixture of ashes and coffee dregs. His fondness for the woodcuts of Hiroshige, Utamaro and Hokusai was due not to their freedom of composition but to their intense interest in everyday life and to the decorative, casual, “shorthand” they had developed to capture it.

Bonnard had only to come downstairs from his studio in the Rue Pigalle to plunge into the colorful whirl of Montmartre- the world of glittering, turn of the century  cafés and nightclubs, of cab horses, waiters, corseted ladies, sidewalks, bespattered with multicolored lights or lost in soft paris grayness, that was made familiar by Toulouse-Lautrec. But whereas the latter’s observation is ironic, incisive, even corrosive, Bonnard’s is humorous and gentle. Lautrec captures his models with the lasso of his merciless line: Bonnard wins the confidence of the small girl  with the enormous laundry basket under her arm, the nannies promenading their babies, the melancholy street lamps wrapped in mist, the woman sewing in the cozy circle of the lampshade.

Bonnard. Self Portrait. 1937."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." ( Nickson)

Bonnard’s timidity reassures everything that is fleeting, fragile and delicate in life. His paintings have the freshness of a secret whispered in your ear. What solemn historians call his “intimism” is simply his ability, unprecedented in art, not to domesticate dogs, cats and children, but to let them stroll across his canvases.

Bonnard. The Bathroom. 1932. Horseley: The composition is so studied that one wonders why the little dog's rear legs and the bathtub's leg seem to be cut off at the bottom of the picture. One must assume that such compositional "errors" are intentional as they occur frequently in Bonnard's work and doubtless have contributed to his critics who have not put Bonnard in the highest pantheon and emphasized his "hedonist" side.


The profound irony inherent in modernist reductionism is its noble attempt to get to the heart of the matter, whatever it might be, despite the inadequacy of the means employed. In literature, what is lost is what one expects of words: communication; in art: what is lost is legibility. These are not unendurable losses, if the method is transparent — as it is, for instance, in Pound or Picasso.  In all cases, dealing with the problem is sometimes of enormous interest in itself. You explode traditional habits, and perceive on new levels of awareness, But the works always fail in the end, because their ambition is beyond their capacities to achieve. ( Dr. Francis V. O’Connor)

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