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)
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….
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.
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.
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 cd 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.
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.”
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’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’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.
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)