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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 9 APRIL 2015 — A superb exhibition encompassing the entire career of Pierre Bonnard, one of the greatest painters of the 20th century, is currently on view at the Orsay Museum in Paris. An impressive number of his most important paintings and photographs reflecting the elegance, vitality and charm that characterise his work, reveal an instinctive and supremely sensitive artist. Fascinated by bright colours, and "rediscovering" the light and beauty of the South of France, many of his works radiate with the beauty of nature that he saw around him. He painted landscapes, portraits, still life, everyday objects and everyday scenes peopled with men, women and children from all walks of life accompanied by their family pets. A canvas portraying a big black Labrador hopefully eying the remains of a cherry pie is full of innocence and enchantment, while the sublime nudes of his wife, Marthe, washing and bathing, contain a blend of observation and subjectivity, accurate likeness and esthetic enhancement. She is pink, pearly and inviting. This magnificent retrospective is divided into nine sections: his Japanese period, the unexpected, intimacy, photography, portraits, luxuriant gardens, colour itself, and large sized decorative panels which were often commissioned.

Pierre Bonnard: La Toilette

Bonnard’s first model in painting was Gauguin and he developed an early passion for Japanese prints after seeing a show at the Ecole des Beaux-arts in Paris in 1890 during his studies there. He developed a highly decorative style with embedded motives in complex designs and with flat areas of bright colours, and his decorative panels recalling the kakemono earned him the name of ‘the very Japanese Nabi’. Indeed, with a group of friends, including Paul Sérusier and Edouard Vuillard, he formed an aesthetic avant-garde groupe called the Nabis. His favourite subject matter was drawn from the contemporary world and his private life. Le grand Jardin, completed in 1895, shows a traditional approach to a family scene depicting the garden in the house in Isere where he spent his childhood holidays. Loving the theatre and dance, Danseuses, in soft colours of grey and white, painted the following year, was inspired by the corps de ballet of the Paris Opera Ballet. Reminiscent of works by Degas, this has been painted from an unexpected angle, for the dancers are seen from a dizzying height and are unusually framed.  

Disliking all forms of pomposity, Bonnard became interested in intimate themes and his interiors tend to depict sentimental or psychological situations such as loneliness, tenderness or simply the breakdown of communication as seen in his Man and Woman, a painting which depicts two people between closed doors with a screen separating them, (Marthe and himself?). A touch of mystery has been added to a commonplace scene. He was a keen photographer, and with an easy-to-use Kodak pocket camera he began to capture everyday moments in family life. There are snapshots of his sister, Andrée, his brother-in-law, the musician Claude Terrace, and his five nephews whom he adored. Again, his off-centre framings and soft blurring, which could shock today, merely confirm his spontaneity and his aesthetic bias and although they were intended for the family album, they did provide him with useful material for his paintings, offering models pictured from life.

All of his photographs of Marthe are flattering and show her as a slender, beautiful woman, as do his paintings of her in the bathroom where the spectator is invited to catch her at a relaxed moment. His Le Grand nu bleu and Nu dans un interieur show a woman at her toilette, her face always invisible. Angles have been found to reveal or hide parts of the naked body, eroticizing the rituals while the flowered wallpapers, colourful rugs, mirrors, curtains and requisite toiletries envelope her with a vibrant aura. In 1912 he bought a little house on a hillside overlooking the Seine in Normandy which fired his imagination with its panoramic views extending as far as the eye could see; he’d paint from the balcony there, overlooking his "wild garden" which sloped down to the water. All the colours of the vegetation blended together and the light, saturated with mist, created a hazy vision of the greenery surrounding him. His figures seem suspended in space. He’d never go out with an easel, but paint landscapes framed from the front balcony or his studio. If he went out, it was to pay a visit to Monet in nearby Giverny from time to time. But the explosion of colour in his work came from his move to the South of France, where, enamoured by the dazzling lights and reflections around him, by the blinding yellows of the mimosa and the hedonistic atmosphere of the Cote D’Azur, he bought a house at Le Cannet, in the hills above Cannes. He was now 59, at the height of his fame, and had everything he wanted at hand, the house, the garden, the luxuriant vegetation, the sea and above all, his wife, Marthe who became the central figure in his works. He never tired of painting her in her bath and she frequently bathed twice a day!  

Pierre Bonnard: Painting Arcadia
Musée d’Orsay, Paris

His paintings from this period are amongst the most luminous of his career, giving an impression of time having stopped. Poetry is present in each stroke of his brush as he searched to capture the magic of the changing colours. He’d watch the trees moving in the breeze and would comment, "Art can never surpass nature", adding that the almond tree there "obliged" him to paint it each year. Each and every one of his works completed here are pervaded by every shade of yellow, from bananas to interiors as well as outside walls, culminating in the flowering mimosa outside the bay window of his studio. Here, as in Normandy, he painted from his own vision of things, mealtimes, games, moments of intense happiness, the overall impression given by this whole exhibition. Over 300 works were completed in Le Cannet, not least 60 from the window of his dining-room alone, a purring cat, a frisking dog, the Chihuahua and basset hound, and the aforementioned Labrador, two large hungry eyes on the remains of the tart.  

This gorgeous exhibition draws to its close with several large scale panels designed as the artists approach grew bolder and his colours intensified. He produced major decors for his friends, including the sumptuous triptych, La Méditerranée commissioned by the Russian collector, Ivan Morozov. It combines pastoral themes with those of antiquity, bringing in scenes from contemporary life. The work gave free rein to his limitless fantasy.

 This retrospective devoted to each of his creative periods, one of the finest to be seen in Paris these last few years, unites many great masterpieces of Pierre Bonnard, the artist who fits into no one category and who, despite being two years senior to Matisse and three years younger than Toulouse-Lautrec, had little to do with the Impressionists. Already at the age of 24, after abandoning his law studies, he had declared that he simply wanted to "do his own thing". He idealized the world in his little house in the hills above Cannes, playing with colours and light, painting Marthe again and again, his nose close to his canvas, sublimating her body in the same way he sublimated nature. A perfectionist, even when his fame was assured, he kept up a habit of retouching his paintings even when they’d been bought or hung on display. At both the museum of Grenoble and Luxembourg he would sneak into the gallery, a small paint-box in his pocket, and surreptitiously retouch his own work behind the backs of the guardians, correcting details that had been disturbing. That accomplished, he’d disappear double quick, his face wreathed in smiles. As do all the visitors upon leaving this unique exhibition for Pierre Bonnard has managed to capture happiness on his canvas.

Pierre Bonnard: Painting Arcadia
Through 19 July 2015
Musée d’Orsay
62, rue de Lille
75343 Paris Cedex 07
Tel: (33) 1 40 49 48 14

Patricia Boccadoro is a senior editor at Culturekiosque. She last wrote on the Bengali choreographer Akram Khan and the Flamenco dancer Israel Galvin. 

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