Pierre Bonnard: The Experience of Seeing
18 East 79th St. New York, NY
By DAVID AMBROSE, May 2023
“I let myself go to the tyranny of color.”
-- Pierre Bonnard
If only the “Tyranny of Color” were an actual place, one could suffer a far worse fate than living under the bristled scepter wielded by Pierre Bonnard who along with his wife and muse, Marthe, spent the better part of twenty years cultivating a glistening, timeless kingdom in the South of France.
Bonnard: The Experience of Seeing at Acquavella Galleries brings together twenty-one easel-sized paintings drawn from the last three decades of Bonnard’s life until his death in 1947. I hesitate to call these paintings “easel-sized” since Bonnard was not an easel painter. Most of the work was executed in a small second-floor room that acted as a studio in a modest villa purchased in 1925 and christened, Le Bosquet (The Grove), in Le Cannet, a lush, hilly town that overlooks the French Riviera.
Bonnard’s preferred support was his studio wall where he would tack up his unstretched canvases. The stiff support afforded him the opportunity to push harder on the surface and blend deeper as if tilling soil in a garden for planting. The approach makes perfect sense when you consider that he worked not from observation, but from memory; using small preliminary sketches and notations on color. He can be seen in a large black and white photo reproduction taken by Brassai hovering over a series of canvases. I imagine him darting about from one painting to another like a hummingbird moving from flower to flower.
The exhibition weaves together a selection of both familiar works borrowed from museum collections along with a group culled from private hands. To be honest, Bonnard’s work always feels familiar. His subjects were modest everyday events. The domestic dramas of daily life, where the true battle being waged was against the effects of time, both physically and emotionally.
The late work ushers in a literal golden age for Bonnard with yellow in the guise of light stretching across wide swathes of canvas. In The French Door (Morning at Le Cannet) (1932), a pair of rectilinear windows and a wall effectively divide the canvas into thirds. Bonnard’s diminutive reflection is seen in a mirror in the background. He is seated behind his wife in an armchair. The wall above his head is bathed in a glowing ethereal yellow light. Marthe, with her eyes looking down at her hands, appears to be sewing. A flurry of pencil lines redefines the paint of her hands searching for clarity. Bonnard would use a pencil point as a carving tool into wet paint; perhaps hinting that even he occasionally got lost in the blurred forms of his work. The asymmetrical composition maintains its equilibrium with a pair of sunbathed landscapes out of the two windows. A thin wedge of wall shifts from light to shadow and back to light again– orange to gray to yellow – like a Mark Rothko painting compressed in a funhouse mirror. In the Table in Front of the Window (1934), a series of irregularly spaced vertical red stripes rhythmically vibrate like guitar strings across a tabletop while the fringe of a curtain dangles like stalactites. A row of garden stones on a path morphs into a gaping maw of teeth. The silhouetted, backlit window frame and chair resembles the bridge of a nose. The faint outline of a figure, barely visible along the border to the right, appears to set the table ablaze with a cascade of lemon-yellow brushstrokes as objects scatter across the surface. A trivet with its yellow and cerulean blue reflection anchors the composition and calls to mind Robert Motherwell’s, Mallarme’s Swan (1944). Bonnard’s tabletop poetry is written in object and absence; an elegy to French domesticity, acting as a “prophet” to the Motherwell by a decade.
Bonnard’s tonal range can shift from subatomic to subzero all within a single painting (and some cases within the same windowpane) as if he painted with a temporal thermometer rather than a paintbrush. Tapestries of incandescent color act as heat maps to track Bonnard’s emotional connectedness to his subjects. Color was his conduit channeling a pathway from his reality toward abstraction. Subsequently, it is also the element that gives Bonnard’s work its widest appeal.
Yet Bonnard doesn’t apply color to his forms as much as he extinguishes them with color; tamping them down (and out) with his paintbrush by blurring their edges. It is a color so saturated and intense it almost seems aromatic. I couldn’t help but think of Picasso’s disparaging remark regarding Bonnard’s palette as “a potpourri of indecision.” I might suggest a shift of emphasis from chromatic indecision to an allover fragrance. One that engulfs you a bit like opening a second-floor window on the Cote d’Azur. WM
David Ambrose is an artist and critic living and working in Bound Brook, New Jersey. He has exhibited both nationally and internationally. He is the currently the subject of a mid-career retrospective entitled, “Repairing Beauty”, at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton, New Jersey. He has taught at Parsons, The New School for Design, Pratt Institute and the Fashion Institute for Technology.view all articles from this author