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PIERRE BONNARD (1867-1947) : SUMMER COLOUR

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In 1994 I visited the 'Bonnard at Le Bosquet' exhibition at London's Hayward Gallery  in the company of an eminent artist. "Oh, but he couldn't draw!" exclaimed my friend. Vasari once said the same of Raphael.
Having seen many Bonnards in various galleries since,  I now understand what provoked the remark. It was not so much that Bonnard could not draw in the classical sense but that he allowed his drawing to be distorted by light. His bathers lack the perfect bulge of muscle and sinew that his predecessor Degas captured in pastel although Bonnard shared Degas' brilliant manipulation of colour. Bonnard's nudes lose their firm outlines in a haze of summer heat. The perpetual summer heat of Le Cannet in the South of France where he lived for years with Marte his wife and preferred model.
She poses on a crumpled bed legs akimbo and yes, to a rigorously trained artist Bonnard's loose handling of her flesh can seem amateurish, not quite right. Same applies for the bathroom scenes of the 1930's where figures can sometimes appear grotesque.  But look again and think of your own flesh when exposed to the dazzling light of reflected water, how it seems to glow and shimmer and play tricks on the eye. Bonnard particularly loved this area around Le Cannet and in 1926 bought 'Villa Le Bosquet', which was to be his main home for the rest of his life. Its chaotically profuse garden was the subject of dozens of Bonnard's canvases. Again he chose to create tonal compositions that flickered across the exotic vegetation. In Bonnard's 'Summer' the canvas positively vibrates with blazing summer colour. You can't get that effect being careful about line.

Matisse his contemporary  (1869-1954) also lived and painted in the heat of the south of France but his technical brilliance as a draughtsman goes unquestioned by my artist friend.  

Line and solid saturated colour was essentially what Matisse cared about. Even in Matisse's earlier works like 'Femme Assise a sa Coiffeuse' of 1923-24 that share the same serene domestic settings as Bonnard, he relies on heavy blocks of colour outlined in black.
© courtesy of The Art Group
Breaking up lines and refracting colour is what Bonnard was bent on doing.
In many ways Bonnard seems positively "retro" compared to the innovative avant garde Matisse as he plodded on repeating his domestic themes always striving to relay a sense of calm and security in which the natural world is allowed to dominate.
Matisse borrowed elements from nature and then distilled them into stylized quotations in works like 'Femmes et singes'.
 
Femmes et singes. Matisse
Matisse tried hard to break with the past and such seminal works had the ripple effect of influencing generations of artists that followed. It would be wrong to say that Bonnard in turn, was that influential.
At the same time Bonnard should not be seen as an artist stubbornly faithful to the strictly figurative. His well-known paintings of nudes floating in tub fulls of water are almost exercises in the abstract. Capable of experimenting beyond the confines of real forms it seems Bonnard felt there was still much to explore in the simple visuals of his immediate physical surroundings. What has resulted from this constant re-examination of daily life, his wife, his garden, the rituals of the bath and the breakfast table is a remarkable body of work that explores the possibilities of the paint medium. I don't think many people who will view the Martigny exhibition are going to spend time questioning if he could draw or not, they will be too busy remarking upon the colour and the light.

The Editor
 

Pierre Bonnard
'SUMMER'
A major retrospective of Bonnard's work is now showing in Switzerland at the Fondation Pierre Giannada, Martigny till 14th November 1999. Some 120 works are in the exhibition. 
ENTER THE EXHIBITION 'BONNARD' at MARTIGNY HERE

 
Summer
Summer
Nude At Fireplace
Nude At Fireplace
Bonnard's Backyard
Bonnard's Backyard
Table Set in a Garden
Table Set in a Garden
Open Window
Open Window
Signac & Friends
Signac & Friends
La Cote d'Azur
La Cote d'Azur
Breakfast Room
Breakfast Room




 

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