Lessons from Bonnard

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In his essay on Pierre Bonnard, The Art of Making a World (included in his book, Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa), Michael Kimmelman relates a conversation he once had with the photographer Cartier-Bresson. While viewing a self-portrait by Bonnard, Cartier-Bresson said, “You know, Picasso didn’t like Bonnard and I can imagine why, because Picasso had no tenderness. It is only a very flat explanation to say that Bonnard is looking in a mirror in this painting. He’s looking far, far beyond. To me he is the greatest painter of the century. Picasso was a genius, but that is something quite different.”

Kimmelman goes on to quote Picasso on the topic of Bonnard: “Don’t talk to me about Bonnard. That’s not painting, what he does…Painting isn’t a question of sensibility: it’s a question of seizing the power, taking over from nature, not expecting her to supply you with information and good advice.”

In many ways Picasso and Bonnard inhabited two extremes of the painting spectrum. During the era when both of them were working, Bonnard was the one who was out of step, painting works that were too soft compared to the structured detachment of cubism. Many saw Bonnard as an impressionist working after impressionism was past, an anachronism caught up in his search for the elusive beauty of paradise.

With time, respect for Bonnard’s vision has steadily grown. He is not the marginalized artist Picasso dismissed but someone whose body of work speaks to a modern viewer with power and meaning. “These works crystallize what has always been Bonnard’s primary mood, that of elegy,” writes Sarah Whitfield in Bonnard. “He has often been described as a painter of pleasure, but he is not a painter of pleasure. He is a painter of the effervescence of pleasure and the disappearance of pleasure.” That is a sense of life that speaks to contemporary viewers.

I had a similar experience of how time shifts our view while reading Unstill Life: A Daughter’s Memoir of Art and Love in the Age of Abstraction, by Gabrielle Selz. Gabrielle, daughter of art critic/historian Peter Selz, is a gifted writer and has captured a slice of art world life both in New York City and on the West Coast (her father was chief curator at MOMA before moving to open the Berkeley Museum in California). Her charismatic father befriended many major artists—Mark Rothko, Max Beckmann, Karel Appel, Alberto Giacometti, Christo, Carolee Schneeman, among others—but that glitterati world also had its dark side of bad parenting, bad partnering and a whole lot of that 60s self indulgence. This isn’t a name dropping, “lifestyles of the rich and famous” memoir. It is the story of a complicated life told with intelligence and evenhandedness. I never lost interest in her or her world, a significant feat for any memoirist.

Gabrielle is a few years younger than me, but our lives run along many parallels. Like me, she was bi-coastal in the 60s and 70s, observing the art world both in New York and in the Bay Area. We lived just a few blocks from each other in New York City, and we even attended the same university, UC Santa Cruz. She had a front row seat however, and her account offered a more intimate view of events I remember but observed from the periphery.

There might have been a time in my life when being an insider like Gabrielle would have seemed desirable. But not now. I have come to see that there are people who are outsiders by nature. For me, I’m more interested in the weeds that grow beyond the edge of the well manicured green. Like Bonnard, I have come to believe that you can find and create your enchantment anywhere, on any terms.

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9 Comment

  1. Love this: “Painting isn’t a question of sensibility: it’s a question of seizing the power, taking over from nature, not expecting her to supply you with information and good advice.””

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      I found that statement pretty amazing too. Thanks for your comment.

    2. Susan Sawyer says:

      Memorable, but that’s Picasso for you — I find him arrogant. Nature can indeed supply you with information and good advice, if you listen.

  2. Maureen says:

    Wonderful post, Deborah. I especially like how you conclude it. The parallel for writers and poets is trying to crack “the Academy”.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thanks so much Maureen. It is an ongoing tension…

  3. daramark says:

    Yes, Bonnard’s paintings are endlessly enchanting because he is not “seizing” it – he is allowing it, and therefore the world breathes through him. Picasso, on the other hand; that murderer.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      So true. Thanks for putting this into high contrast.

  4. That’s beautiful @daramark – “the world breathes through him.”

    Bonnard: how I adore – am lifted up by – his shared enchantment. I once read that he was incapable of mediocrity (I wish I remembered the source), a notion that makes his work even more sacred for me.

    This is a very apt and helpful post for me at the moment D. Especially your last sentence. Thank you, and bless you. Lx

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      MLS, I so resonate with your posts, I have come to expect that we continue to share from the same stream. Thank you for your words here.

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