April 19, 2015

"Painting Arcadia" Pierre Bonnard at the Musée d'Orsay

The "must see" exhibition in Paris this Spring recently opened to rave reviews at the wonderful Musée d'Orsay.  While I was a little surprised that Pierre Bonnard would be honored with another retrospective just a few years after his major show at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, I am a big enough fan to join the queue and check it out.

When I emerged from the exhibition an hour or so later I was really glad I went.  While "Pierre Bonnard. Painting Arcadia" is another retrospective of this fine artist's work, it is undoubtably the most all-encompassing and well-curated of any I've had the opportunity to visit. 

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) is probably one of the most purely decorative artists of his generation.  His work, with its glowing colors and multiple patterns, presents complex subjects in a most beautiful style.  Theoretically, he was a Post-Impressionist, influenced by, but never a part of the circle.  Practically, it was Paul Gaugin and Japanese woodblock prints that inspired his early work as you see at left in his large format wall panel "Le Peignoir", 1892.  This preoccupation with decorative pattern remained constant throughout his long career.

By the 1890s, Bonnard was at the center of a newly formed artistic movement called Les Nabis, a Hebrew and Arabic word for "Prophets".  This avant garde group of artists included Edouard Vuillard, Maurice Denis, Paul Ranson, among other friends from the Académie Julien, who preached art for art's sake and the equality of decorative versus "fine" art (much like the Pre-Raphaelites working in England).  Les Nabis produced works that were often symbolist in nature and were typically flat in feeling and opened the doors for the world of abstract and cubist art that was waiting in the wings.

Whatever the "ism" of the moment was, Bonnard remained true to his own, very personal, style.  His works are typically views from unusual angles, with unconventional cropping and a preponderance of color and pattern.  Human emotion is raw and viewers often have the sensation of having stumbled into a very private scene.

"La Table", 1925

Many of Bonnard's works include water - in the scenery or more often in the bathroom.  Some of his most interesting paintings are of his wife Marthe in the bathtub.  While these are intimate views of a woman in a private moment they are not particularly amorous - in fact they are often rather impersonal.  This may be explained by the fact that very shortly after Pierre Bonnard married Marthe, his long-time mistress Renee Monchaty committed suicide.

"Nude in the Bath" c. 1925

The Musée d'Orsay's exhibition was also unique in the special gallery devoted to the photographs of Pierre Bonnard.  Using an early Kodak Pocket Camera, Bonnard was able to capture his friends and family in everyday activities - playing games, taking walks - which he later incorporated into his paintings making him one of the very first artists to paint from photographs.

Later landscapes depicting his "hideaway" in Normandy and his "Arabian Nights experience" in St Tropez are gorgeous examples of Bonnard capturing pastoral paradise in his paintings.
"Decor at Vernonnet"

Appropriately, the show finishes with examples of Bonnard's commissions for interior decoration - a steady source of income throughout his career and a recurring opportunity to depict his own particular vision of "Arcadia".  These peaceful visions of humanity in harmony with nature evoked the kind of "all's well with the world" feeling that "art for art's sake" intended, and continue to be sought after to this day.
"Pierre Bonnard.  Painting Arcadia" is on view in Paris until July 2015 before continuing to Madrid and San Francisco.

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