On Bonnard

For The Artist magazine in 1981

In the first of a series of articles on great modern masters – which will alternate monthly with the Profile series – Sargy Mann discusses the paintings and drawings of the superb French artist, Pierre Bonnard, who died in 1947.

I do not intend here to give a potted biography of Pierre Bonnard of the sort that could be obtained from any existing monograph. Rather, this is an attempt to put down a personal reflection on an artist who has, more than any other, changed my life. My own impressions are delightfully and revealingly coloured by the vision that Bonnard gave me through his paintings and drawings.

Varied

If one had to describe in a single word the essence of Bonnard’s work, that word would be `joy’. This is why he is so popular with people who have no particular art education, and not properly credited by many who have: `Is he serious enough?’ They follow a common misconception about his work that it is charming, but nothing more: light frothy stuff with no real body. In truth, Bonnard is a great formal master and innovator, on a par with Matisse and Picasso. He is the modern master closest to the old masters in the complexity, richness and subtlety of his paintings. His subject matter is arguably the most varied in the history of painting. He painted landscapes of great variety; many portraits, from heads to very large paintings of more than one figure; still lifes; nudes; and an enormous array of figure compositions including some of religious themes or scenes taken from classical mythology. The majority of these figure paintings were, however, simply of the world around him, peopled as he saw it. The nudes are his wife washing or bathing or

putting on her black stockings. (Bonnard is one of the very few artists who can paint erotic pictures which are not unpleasant or embarrassing). A still life may be the break-fast table, with his wife or a dog partly show-ing at the edge of the picture. Landscapes and townscapes are frequently peopled; a painting of his friends in a cafe is a group portrait, and so on. He painted anything and everything. But how did he do it? How did he paint those momentary intimate encounters on the street or in the cafes; cats on the point of stealing a sardine off the dinner table; and above all the effects of light, lasting perhaps a minuteā€”even a few seconds? Part of the answer is that he painted from memory. Just look at the paintings reproduced in this article, or better by far, go to the Tate Gallery or the Courtauld Institute and dwell on this for a while. Two things become apparent: his almost unbelievable memory for particularity as well as harmony; and a sense that these thoroughly convincing paintings could not have resulted from direct observation. They are paintings of remembered experience, different from a recording of an on-the-spot. This is not so apparent with many of the landscapes, portraits and still lifes, but if you look at The Bowl of Milk (Figure 1), you may feel that this moment is also the distillation of an event, only arrived at later in memory.

Painted from memory

Bonnard said that he `felt weak in front of nature’, and that the presence of the inspiring subject seemed to rob him of the freedom he needed to realise it in a painting. Initially working from memory because of this weakness, he began to find that a whole new world of subject matter had opened up for him. I say that Bonnard painted from memory, but the memory, almost always of a particular visual experience, was brought to light in front of his canvas by a little drawing that he had made at the time of the first experience. He drew incessantly at any time and anywhere and these drawings are one of the wonders of the visual arts. Seldom more than about 4 by 6 ins in size and on any old rubbishy bit of paper to hand – many are on squared maths paper, others on flimsy numbered sheets from invoice books – they are packed with wonderfully diverse but harmonised information about light, form, space, incident and colour. It is perhaps this last quality, that of conveying a coloured experience by means of a pencil drawing (they are usually made with a soft pencil) which is most surprising. Patrick Heron, in his study of Bonnard, felt obliged to admit that the suggestion of colour in the drawings is only there by association, but I do not agree with this. There are many qualities not directly representable on a two-dimensional surface: weight, for example; movement, as of the branches of a tree blown by the wind, or of clouds; animation; space itself, whose presence is manifest in appearances. This means that awareness of weight leads to awareness of the necessary balance of that weight and the deformations it causes; that movement makes one aware of certain visual rhythms; that animation may be seen in a particular relationship of mouth and eye; and that 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 everything that was of concern to the artist at the time of making it, and if colour was one such quality, then information about it is caught in the drawing along with everything else, and is not just there by association. The fact that we cannot name the colours does not mean that their particular presence is not an inseparable part of the drawing. His drawings had to catch all the qualities that he wanted to paint; drawing was once defined by Matisse as `painting with limited means’.

Precise drawing

The transition from drawing to painting was not at all like that practised by Sickert for example, of squaring up the two, in order to move the flat design, unaltered, from one to the other, as you will see if you compare Figures 3 and 4. In making a study of such pairings, I have come to the conclusion that there is almost always one precise drawing for each painting, with occasionally, as in the case of the figure here, another drawing for some part. The composition of the drawing and that of the painting are always different, and very often even the proportions of objects themselves, as well as their relationships have been changed considerably. Also it is likely that any rather diagonal composition will find a more rectilinear resolution within the canvas, as in the case of the The Table. No single object, shape or direction may remain exactly the same, and yet in some mysterious way it is always the very same experience in both drawing and painting. That this can be so is the essence of true realism in art, and something which the liberating extremes of Cubism and Fauvism had made the twentieth-century realists much more consciously aware of and concerned with. Painting, when it is utterly truthful in intention, is, like poetry, a metaphor for experience, and achieves truthful expression by attending to its own form and structure as well as those of the subject. It is not a literal process.

Anyone who can truly grasp this, need have no fear of either photography or abstraction, and will find there is absolutely no limit to the depths of realistic expression that can be achieved by great painting. But the truth has to be felt and believed, it cannot be demonstrated, for there is nothing with which a painting by Bonnard (or anyone else) can be compared in order to verify it, other than the artist’s experience from which it grew, and to which he alone is privy. We must first give up the idea (as the artists themselves did) that we know how the world actually looks, then we can share in their discoveries, which are not versions but visions. Anyone looking at The Bowl of Milk can see that the drawing and tone and colour are not photographic. Why should they be? The subject is not a photograph but Bonnard’s experience on a particular morning in Antibes. It is true that some of the grosser information that Bonnard has communicated might have been put across more easily by a photograph, but the true expression of this remarkable painting must be sought rather in its unique particularity of design, just as the heart of a poem must be what cannot be achieved in a prose report but requires all the expressive power of controlled sound as well as syntax. As with nearly all the great painters since Cezanne, Bonnard did not draw in linear perspective. Cezanne’s gradual break with this tradition in his pursuit of absolute truth freed the following generations from certain limitations in that great convention, and they began to design in their rectangles and apportion their colours more intuitively. An equivalent break with the old convention, of ordered tone and colour left them with greater freedom, and drawing and colour became truly interdependent.

Two eye-levels

From a traditional standpoint you could say that The Bowl of Milk has two eye levels, one above, looking down on the room, table, window, sea, etc., and a much lower one looking across at the girl. As so often in Bonnard’s paintings, this is a wide-angle view; he was standing very close and a perspective drawing of the figure would have given extreme and worrying foreshortening; the table is also more memorable seen from above, and the girl from the front. The cat, which acts as a balance between the two, is a brilliant stroke, for in relation to the girl it is walking, but to the room, it seems to be jumping down from a chair; it is a very real scene.

Bonnard once said to a tiro painter, ‘Light is our God, young man. One day you will come to realise what this means.’ In this painting, as in every Bonnard, the ravishing colour is everywhere making light; that is its purpose. Bonnard was heir to the impressionists but the break with tradition that they initiated left him free to use his genius (and the new pigments) in even more radiantly inventive ways. Bonnard was unique in his ability to use the full expressive power of both tone and colour in the same painting. The dramatic tonal contrasts at the centre of The Bowl of Milk establish different levels of illumination in different areas strongly enough to hold the glorious gamut of light-giving colour harmonies and discords within each. Every colour seems to tell of both the local colour of a surface and of its texture, or degree of reflectance, and thereby bears news of else-where. For example, the blanched violet in the centre of the painting tells of polished dark wood and dazzling blue sky. One of the advantages of painting over literature or music is that each work can be taken in at a glance. You can experience a surge of pleasure every time you catch sight of it. One of the tragedies is that so few people nowadays ever give a painting more than a glance. A Bonnard is as satisfying in half a second as a taste or smell can be, but sitting here looking at a reproduction of Le Cannet for some time, I begin to experience again what I have seen before in front of the original in Paris: a growing enveloping vastness of earth and sky; and with it the glorious colour transmuting into an even more glorious light. My eye begins to trace out the complicated pattern of criss-crossing diagonals in the lower third of the painting; they become space and I go bounding like some giant, down the hill from Le Cannet, across Cannes, and on, one foot on the dark boat, to bounce off the sea and up into the enormous sky to swing up and over from cloud-chain to cloud-chain until I am hanging over myself and can drop down into the green crown of the tree below. The landscape begins to close round me; the nearer trees seem nearer, the horizon and sky further away, the hill steeper and the sense of surveying the world more real and amazing.

Finishing this piece, I find that I have been mindlessly marvelling at the blueness of this writing paper reflecting the autumn sky out-side. I have Bonnard to thank for this too.

The Artist Magazine, February 1981. Sargy Mann Bonnard article.

The Artist Magazine, February 1981. Sargy Mann Bonnard article.

The Artist Magazine, February 1981. Sargy Mann Bonnard article. Spread 1.

The Artist Magazine, February 1981. Sargy Mann Bonnard article. Spread 1.

The Artist Magazine, February 1981. Sargy Mann Bonnard article.Spread 2.

The Artist Magazine, February 1981. Sargy Mann Bonnard article.Spread 2.

The Artist Magazine, February 1981. Sargy Mann Bonnard article. Spread 3.

The Artist Magazine, February 1981. Sargy Mann Bonnard article. Spread 3.