Years ago Duncan Phillips, original proprietor of the Phillips Collection described Pierre Bonnard as the “true descendent of the sensuous Renoir, but more sophisticated, less robust and normal.”
These idolatrous words, while thematically in keeping with both artists’ styles, make too broad an assertion, selling short one painter and discounting his impression on the medium. Moreover, in reference to artistry, what does normality have to do with anything?
Elizabeth Hutton Turner, senior curator of the exhilarating “Pierre Bonnard: Early and Late” collection featured at the Phillips Collection gallery, clarifies Phillips’ thought. “Bonnard strove to ignite the senses, to embrace the peculiarities in life. He was creatively and temporally in a constant state of flux.”
There is a roughness to many of Pierre Bonnard’s works, which suggest the artist rushed to get his feelings out across the canvas, his brush a half step behind his heart. The oil painting “Woman Bathing” exhibits this flow of vibrancy.
In some paintings, the background and the foreground transpose to reveal a tense perspective. His piece entitled “The Lamp” a large candelabra that, in a witty stroke, seems to be sucking the energy and light from the principal figures. Their life appears calibrated by the intensity of the ominous brass claw above their weary heads.
Another work in oil called “The Red Cupboard” features a few ambiguous food items and some glassware. What is most striking about this piece is Bonnard’s use of background color to give the brilliant red shelves as much attention, if not more, than the perishable food and breakable dinnerware. Its as if Bonnard meant to say that when they are long gone, the cupboard will remain a thing of splendor, sturdy and vibrant.
Other works are celebrations of color and light. A Japanese-style screen, in deep red and green called “Murabout (Stork) and Four Frogs” is a tonal saturate that doesn’t necessarily evoke the culture of Japan so much as expound on it.
Bonnard lets his paints bleed into the weaving of his canvas, making each painstaking detail lively and fresh, giving an added layer of dimension to panels far too exquisite to fulfill their practical purpose – to divide a room.
Not all of the collection is so moving. A master of so many artistic trades, Bonnard’s excursion into photography leaves more questions than answers. Of course, this may very well be the point. Not using advanced methods of shooting, he lets the camera do half the work. There is a distancing quality to many of his photos, most notably those that Phillips took of Marthe in the nude. Marthe Renoir, wife of painter Pierre Renior, posed for a number of stills for Phillips and was one of his favorite subjects. Hardly intimate, there is a mannered calculation to her posturing before the camera’s cold lens.
Upon revisiting the pictures, we are let in on Bonnard’s sly challenge – life is not set up so methodically and lit by a designer’s influence, so why should pictures of a woman in her most exposed form be?
“He expressed a complete disavowal of static photography because he felt that the roving human eye is too complex to pander to,” Turner said. “For [Bonnard] there was never an end, and always a means [of getting to the core of his art].”
“The Orchard,” a quiet triumph, which hangs unassumingly in a corner of the gallery upstairs, makes clear Bonnard’s handle on the eye’s focus. A lithograph in pale greens, the color of rusted copper (think Lady Liberty), “The Orchard” depicts a woman and her children doing the laundry on the bank of a lake. Bonnard articulates each part of the painting process, technical as well as emotional, to be in direct proportion. Call it impressionistic egalitarianism.
“The Little Laundry Girl” could depict a character out of a Charles Dickens piece. Pictured, we see a young waif standing before a puckish mutt on an unkind street. Bonnard’s ability to capture a moment is, at times, staggering.
Two pieces, both titled “Young Women in the Garden” convey polarized personalities. In one, the girls face inward, their faces blurred, perhaps in secretive conference. Though it is rendered in yellows and oranges, this is not a warm painting.
In the second, though, one of the women is facing us, beaming and inviting us into the painting. We are rebuffed and then treated cordially in a matter of seconds. Women are complicated, beautiful creatures, and Bonnard understood this all too well.
Bonnard grew creatively, tapping into virtually every genre of the medium, saluting them instead of making them wholly his own. Some will lament the fact that several etchings have the topical intimacy of a burlesque advertisement; the sort perhaps found peeling from the walls in turn of the century Paris.
A daring artist, Bonnard also evolved emotionally. Each period of his life, early and late, unravels his emotional core, such that his self-portraitures are somber dribbles of paint that appear to have been mixed with tears. They hang and weigh on the canvas.
Though his methods were at times questioned, Bonard’s driving force is indisputable. He works from the heart as well as the mind. His friend, the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson said, “There is in the work of Pierre Bonnard a trembling and a humility, which have always overwhelmed (me). Certain painters became fully accomplished at the end of their life. Bonnard blossomed from the beginning to his last breath. His profound intelligence never suffocated his sensuality.”
Normal never sounded so detrimental.