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
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.
Breaking up lines and refracting colour is what Bonnard
was bent on doing.
|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
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'.
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
|Femmes et singes. Matisse
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
|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.
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