The work of Pierre Bonnard is currently on display at the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco. I love this work. I was fortunate enough to stumble on a major retrospective at MOMA in 1998. The effects of that exhibit linger. Beautiful, shimmering color and evocative spatial relationships depict simple images of everyday life. Many of his paintings include secreted, sometimes humorous, iconography like the Hidden Pictures in children’s magazines. Repeated looking often reveals an unexpected encounter with a dog, or a cat, or an unknown visitor. The kind of thing to bring a smile.
He painted from memory and from small sketches scratched into a Mole Skin date book. Most sketches were not more than 2 inches square, perhaps contributing to the immediacy of the finished work. He worked on several unstretched canvases at time incorporating painting into a daily routine of meals, walks and gardening. He was known for never being quite satisfied. Even after the work was on exhibit he would sneak in a brush full or two of paint to make adjustments. A story about him on his deathbed declares that he asked his beloved nephew to add just a little dot of yellow to one of the canvases hanging around his room.
In his early twenties (late 1800’s) he became a lawyer while simultaneously pursuing the path of a painter. He was a student of Gauguin, a roommate of Denis, Serusier and Vuillard who together, along with others from the Académie Julian, formed a group called the Nabis (from the Hebrew word for ‘prophets’). Gauguin believed that forms and figures and colors could possess meaning over and above the depicted image. The Nabis echoed that idea, believing that color and shape, in and of themselves, could symbolize experience individual to the creator and thereby elevating communication with the viewer. (They were inspired by the two-dimensional decorative arts of Japan that had recently made their way to Paris.) The Nabis were also called Symbolists.
But Picasso found little merit in Bonnard’s elevated practice of reflection in his painting: “That’s not painting, what he does. He never goes beyond his own sensibility. He doesn’t know how to choose. When Bonnard paints a sky, perhaps he first paints it blue, more or less the way it looks. Then he looks a little longer and sees some mauve in it, so he adds a touch or two of mauve, just to hedge. Then he decides that maybe it’s a little pink too, so there’s no reason not to add some pink. The result is a potpourri of indecision. If he looks long enough, he winds up adding a little yellow, instead of making up his mind what colour the sky really ought to be. Painting can’t be done that way. Painting isn’t a question of sensibility: it’s a matter of seizing the power, taking over from nature, not expecting her to supply you with information and good advice … that’s what I hold against Bonnard. I don’t want to be moved by him. He’s not really a modern painter: he obeys nature; he doesn’t transcend it.” Pablo Picasso
Yet Matisse called Bonnard “the greatest of us all.” Perhaps painting is a question of the artist’s own sensibility?
Bonnard’s nephew (sister’s son), Charles Terrasse, authored a monograph on Bonnard in 1927. He said of his uncle– “He wished to paint only happy things”.
I’d prefer to think that he favored what was most familiar to inspire. The grandeur of subject matter is not necessary to paint powerful works that transcend the canvas and elevate the viewer. Bonnard did not need sumptuous sunsets or majestic mountains. He did not need aristocrats or wealthy patrons. He did not need exotic lands or political causes in order to find a worthy subject. He merely looked at his garden, his bathroom, his kitchen table, his wife. He did not need to tell a story.
The act of painting, the intermingling of dazzling brushwork and color as shapes weave across the canvas with subtle contrast but plenty of light was, for him, enough to challenge both the artist and the audience. Bonnard said: “The precision of naming takes away from the uniqueness of seeing. Painting has to get back to its original goal, examining the inner lives of human beings.” That which we choose to surround ourselves on a daily basis—the coffee cup and the grocery bag, the flower pot and the paint brush—shoes—perhaps these are the things that are most indicative of our inner lives. Perhaps they are enough to inspire. The challenge this week is to choose your subject from among the ordinary and paint as if you love every stroke of the brush.
“The important thing is to remember what most impressed you and to put it on canvas as fast as possible.” Pierre Bonnard.