Pierre Bonnard

JPL Fine Arts 1979

This essay was the first Sargy wrote for the London gallery JPL fine Arts in 1979. This began a relationship which lasted many years culminating in the book ‘Bonnard drawings’ published by JPL and John Murray. 

Pierre Bonnard is acknowledged to be one of the great masters of modern painting, yet as a draughtsman he is strangely neglected. One reason for this is that he rarely parted with a drawing during his lifetime and even today, thirty- two years after his death, his drawings are seldom seen. Another reason is that the very uniqueness of his drawings has tended to separate them from the popular idea of fine draughtsmanship seen as starting with the Italian Renaissance and proceeding via David and Ingres to Degas; a narrow tradition based mainly on drawings of individual nude figures and heads.

Very early on, Bonnard stopped painting from direct observation. He felt “weak in front of Nature”, he said. The physical presence of the inspiring subject seemed to rob him of the freedom he needed to realise what he called “the initial idea”, so he worked from memory fired by drawings. He drew incessantly: on his daily walks in the country before breakfast, at breakfast, at lunch on the terrace, loafing round the house and garden, at dinner, in cafes, in the streets, on boats and in the bathroom where his wife Marthe spent a disproportionate amount of her day in obsessive washing and bathing. Everywhere and all the time he drew on terrible paper: squared maths paper, flimsy numbered pages from invoice books, the flyleaves of paperbacks, anything. The drawings are usually about five inches by six and made with a soft pencil. George Besson tells us he “scrawled them with a burnt match, even a broken pen, but he had a predilection for an indescribably blunt pencil which was so short that a landscape or a nude seemed to spring from the ends of his three fingers compressed round an invisible point”.

“What I am after”, he said, “is the first impression… I want to show all one sees on entering a room… what the eye takes in at first glance”, and this in part explains the speed at which the drawings usually seem to have been made. (“He never remains long in front of the motif,” wrote Lucie Cousturier.) It also explains the all-over completeness of the drawings and how resistant they are to any subdivision or close inspection of detail. Incredible detail is there but only if you look at the drawings as a whole. Try to locate it and see how it’s done, and you are left with a vague scribble, or a series of dots or ticks.

Matisse likened the making of his late pen drawings to a dancer performing an acrobatic feat. He prepared for it, but then it had to be done in one, without a break. If he bungled it, it had to be attempted again from the start. A rough comparison to the way I imagine Bonnard making his drawings might be Charlie Chaplin as a drunken waiter swaying this way and that, at breakneck speed, through a seething restaurant, never actually losing balance or breaking or spilling anything; a quite unpredictable, brilliant feat of unfailingly maintained balance where each new sensation is a force which affects the momentum of the drawing, must be absorbed and compensated for, and in turn impels the drawing forwards with ever greater speed. A Bonnard drawing is a static equivalent of a dynamic equilibrium, “to draw, the hand should glide over the paper as light as a shadow”, he said.

Matisse elsewhere defined drawing as “painting with limited means”, a definition which emphasises the narrow division between the two, as well as indicating that the limitation was in the means at one’s disposal, not in what was to be undertaken with them. The link between drawing and painting was never closer than with Bonnard, and the ‘limited means’ never less limited. No artist before or since has ever drawn with such a variety of pencil marks – lines, dots, scribbles, smudges, ticks, comas, slashes, jags – and ways of combining them, and it was his need to paint with his pencil, and fast, to respond to anything, any quality he saw, that kept up this wonder of unexpected supply. His ability to make pencil marks be like things, to summon from nowhere the marks for shadowy olive trees a mile and a half away and for the sparkle of sunlight bounding off the Mediterranean, for the bloom on a peach, the highlight on a grape all this is unparalleled and perhaps most puts us in mind of Rembrandt among the acknowledged great draughtsmen. It is a closer comparison than one might think. They both drew for paintings, in the sense of making specific drawings for paintings, and also of nourishing their visual memory by drawing everything around them, and Rembrandt’s drawings, like Bonnard’s have a quite remarkable inventiveness and economy of ‘marks’ such that forms, quite explicit within the context of a whole drawing, may seem flat and almost casually calligraphic when observed in isolation. Patrick Heron in his illuminating essay expands on this aspect of Bonnard, pointing out that though his form is “very powerful” it is distinct from the form of Renoir, say, who developed the different forms in his compositions more or less independently, i.e. sculpturally, so that the form of an arm, a breast, a tree-trunk “is something we can contemplate in complete ignorance of the rest of the canvas. . . But the form of the objects in a picture by Bonnard hardly exists in isolation from the total canvas”. We can enjoy this wonderful feeling for form in the charming figure drawings, usually of Marthe at her toilet. Where in Renaissance drawing do we find a figure better balanced over the weight-bearing foot than (in number 31), where a more grandly bulky Giottoesque figure than Marthe cutting her toenails in (number 18), reminiscent of the classical Thornpuller”?

In another essay Heron writes “… it is surely true to say that in the drawings of his mature periods Bonnard never failed to generate . . . two particular sensations, first and foremost: the feeling of aerial space; and secondly the illusion of colour… Of the two, the second was probably the more remarkable.” Later, however, Heron feels obliged to admit that the suggestion of colour in the drawings is there by association. But here I will happily go further than he. There are many qualities not directly representable on a two-dimensional surface; weight for example, movement (as of the branches of a tree by the wind), animation, space itself perhaps, whose presence is nonetheless manifest in appearances. This means that awareness of weight leads to awareness of the necessary balance of that weight and of the deformations it causes; movement gives rise to different visual rhythms; animation will explain a particular relationship of mouth to eye in a portrait, say, and the whole geometry and rhythmical structure of a drawing may stem from an awareness of space. The point is that the particular balance of marks that goes to make a drawing is the result of all that was of concern to the artist at the time of making it, and if colour is one such quality then information about it is caught in the drawing along with everything else, and is not just there by association. I am certain that the marvellous portrait of Lucienne Dupuy de Frenelle, (number 37), would have turned out somewhat different had her hat been been of a different colour. This does not mean that I can name the colour of her hat, but that in turn does not mean that the drawing does not contain information about the hat’s colour. Bonnard’s attunement to the coloured flux of nature can only be guessed at by looking at his paintings. Looking at the world ourselves won’t tell us what he saw. “In clear cool weather one often notices a trace of vermilion in the orange-red shadows”, he wrote in his sketch-book. Does one? But he did. And here I would like to quote from Professor J. J. Gibson, a leading experimental psychologist. “The environment provides an inexhaustible reservoir of information. Some men spend most of their time looking, others listening, and a few connoisseurs spend their time in smelling, tasting or touching. They never come to an end… Looking and listening continue to improve with experience. Higher-order variables can still be discovered, even in old age”. If we really want to enjoy paintings we must first give up the idea that we know how the world actually looks, as the artists themselves had to do, then we can share in their discoveries which are not versions but visions.

Signac wrote “Bonnard makes his own everything that Nature can offer to his pictorial genius. In the little sketch-book from which he is never separated, or better still in his memory, he jots down pell-mell all that life presents to him. He understands, loves and expresses all that he sees: the pie for dessert, the eye of his dog, a ray of sunlight coming through a window-blind, the sponge in his bathtub. Then wholly by instinct, without even attempting to give an appearance of reality to those often illegible objects, he expresses his love of life in magnificent pictures, always novel in composition, which have the unexpected flavour of unfamiliar fruits”.

There is always an underlying logic and order in these drawings, but this is not a detachable framework or scaffolding on which the more intuitive and personal qualities are built, but one aspect of the experience to which every mark must be answerable, inseparable from the fabric of the drawing. Every mark, for example, is a “where” mark as well as a “what” mark: the same scribble that makes the leaves also makes that particular place in space, that particular distance from his eye, and to do this must be part of the total arrangement which, alone, gives position to anywhere. Heron’s point, that the forms in a Bonnard hardly exist in isolation from the total canvas (or drawing), means that it is only by getting the whole thing right that any part can have meaning, and this total interrelatedness is why the drawings are so exciting as pure decoration and have been so inspiring to the abstract painters.

Bonnard has an unerring sense of perspective but, as with nearly all great draughtsmen since Cezanne, his drawings are not in linear perspective. Cezanne’s discovery of an alternative to this gave later artists a decorative and expressive freedom by releasing them from the strict prescriptive pattern of the subject’s geometry. This new drawing is not, as is popularly supposed, an affirmation of the flatness of the picture-surface at the expense of an illusion of depth or space, it is simply a different convention for best representing those qualities of his experience that the artist wishes to express. It could not be clearer from reading Cezanne’s letters and Matisse’s writings that the expression of a precise space was of paramount importance to them: it was by his ability to realise distance that an artist should be judged Cezanne said. Figurative painting is always concerned with two things; the subject with all its attendant qualities of space and form, light and colour, and the decorated flat surface which is the only means of expressing this. Any particular convention or style has certain advantages and disadvantages: it is more suited to certain subject qualities than others, and leads to surfaces with one sort of decorative appeal rather than another. Perspective, rediscovered in the early Renaissance, had such enormous advantages that it held sway for five hundred years, but the eventual break with it, effected by Cezanne and carried to extremes by the cubists, led to new conventions or styles able to assimilate the revitalising influences of primitive and Eastern art and to use the variety of brilliant pigments newly available. As usual the innovations were the result of expressive need, rather than a desire to be original, and the best way to try to understand them is to look for an explanation in the subjects of the innovators ‘there is nothing really new about cubism’, Picasso said, ‘our subjects may have been different’. One respect in which the subjects of Bonnard, Matisse, Dufy and Soutine were very different from those of the Impressionists and Cezanne was in the extent of the field of vision that they painted. The Impressionists and Cezanne always painted rather narrow-angle views, around thirty degrees, less than that taken in by the average camera lens,. Bonnard on the other hand frequently tackled views occupying sixty to ninety degrees, or even more. I have visited Ma Roulotte, his house on the Seine, and my attempts to photograph his motifs inside and outside the house, and in the surrounding countryside, were seriously thwarted by my not having a camera with a very wide-angle lens. I had to combine three exposures to get the view of one of his famous terrace paintings. If you paint a wide-angle view in linear perspective the resulting flat pattern taxes your suspension of disbelief unbearably, and you may find, as did Bonnard and Matisse, that a different convention of drawing seems more immediately real and true.

In Bonnard’s case the more than merely visual interest his subjects held for him, the focus on a dog or cat up to no good, or on his wife at some domestic chore, or perhaps even more characteristically, not on his wife but on a red box in the middle of a white tablecloth leaving Marthe half off the left-hand edge of the painting, led to very original compositions where the relationship of things to the edges of the canvas was of the greatest importance. “To start a painting, one needs an empty space in the middle”, he once said. It was important that his way of drawing should give him the freedom to compose as he felt inclined, and this too demanded a modification of perspectival drawing where the subject determines the relative areas occupied by things. But a feeling for the truth of perspective underlies all his drawings (as even with most cubist compositions), and the landscape drawings demonstrate that wonderful grasp of the appearance of unfolding space possessed by all great draughtsmen. Look, for example at (number 15). Find your eye-level on the horizon near the top of the drawing and then experience the steep rush down the foreground road to the stream at the bottom. Then up the sun-soaked willows to soar away across the hill on the right, the chateau, its pinnacle not so very far below us  and the flatter hill beyond, to the sky; only to snap back to overhanging leaves, lime perhaps, and nearer to us than we at first thought; and we’re off again on another journey through space and light this time perhaps more aware of the screen of dark foliage on the right, the shadowed wall, the wonderful shadow straggling across the road near our feet and up the sun-drenched bush on the left to the nearest tree-trunk to complete the elliptical journey along its extending branch; or back down the receding line of little trees on the left to the stream again. It never ends. We can live as long as we can spare in this little piece of paper, never getting bored, always making new and delightful discoveries.

It is fascinating to compare the drawings with the painting made from them. I have come to the conclusion that Bonnard normally made a painting from a single drawing fixing the “idea”. Sometimes there will be a second drawing, probably made at the same time, giving an alternative of some part. From studying the few dozen cases where I have been able to make a pairing, certain things become apparent: the proportions of the painting are usually quite different from that of the drawing and, perhaps even more surprisingly, the internal relationships are frequently very different; trees are moved closer together and the shapes and sizes of objects are altered, and yet somehow the painting remains of exactly that subject – the ‘idea’ remains unchanged, even though the means of realising it have become modified in the translation from drawing to painting. This is a very different process from the traditional one of painting from a squared up drawing, as practised by Sickert for example.

Of this collection of drawings five at least are certainly and exclusively the drawings for known paintings: number 15,16, 29, 36 and 41. The painting made from 36,  “Paysages aux Vaches, 1913”, cuts off the drawing just to the right of the central poplar and compresses the stand of willows to bring the two groups of cows together. Yet although there are many paintings of this meadow and quite a few have cows, there is no doubt that this is the precise drawing for that painting. Number 41 raises two interesting points. It is an example of a general tendency of the paintings to become more frontal than the drawings, or more precisely to lose the diagonal look of the drawing without becoming more frontal. There is also an example of inventiveness wrought by necessity. The subject is the vertical band of shadow cast by the open cupboard door which cuts so thrillingly across the horizontal divisions of the shelves, alive with their varied contents. In the painting the brightest part is the triangle of light coming under the door at its hinge, yet in the drawing this triangle is very dark ! Not having a rubber with him at the time Bonnard must have deliberately made this shape very dark in order to preserve the vital contrast. Picasso once said “Many is the time I wanted red, found I had none, and had to use blue instead”. Great artists are never at a loss.

In all Bonnard’s drawings there is a compelling sense of a moment seen, and I am reminded of Cezanne’s extraordinarily moving description to Gasquet of what it was he was trying to paint, “a minute of the world going by”.

Let me leave you with the first four lines of Sir John Betjeman’s poem “Youth and Age on Beaulieu River, Hants” which share with these drawings the penetratingly precise observation of Nature, and the sense of transporting joy this engenders.

Early sun on Beaulieu water

Lights the undersides of oaks,

Clumps of leaves it floods and blanches,

All transparent glow the branches

Which the double sunlight soaks;

Pierre Bonnard, JPL Catalogue. Cover

Pierre Bonnard, JPL Catalogue. Cover

Pierre Bonnard, JPL Catalogue. Page 1

Pierre Bonnard, JPL Catalogue. Page 1

Pierre Bonnard, JPL Catalogue. text 1

Pierre Bonnard, JPL Catalogue. text 1

Pierre Bonnard, JPL Catalogue. Text page 2

Pierre Bonnard, JPL Catalogue. Text page 2

Pierre Bonnard, JPL Catalogue. Text page 3

Pierre Bonnard, JPL Catalogue. Text page 3