For visual pleasure, nothing in Washington, D.C., beats the current show at the Phillips Collection, "Pierre Bonnard: Early and Late." Seeing the paintings, you can feel the hot Mediterranean sun beating down almost. Bonnard's exquisite sense of color, design and composition hypnotizes the viewer into relaxing, into settling and savoring the lush worlds devised oh-so-carefully by the artist.
Bonnard is often seen as a late Impressionist with Symbolist beginnings. The exhibition has a thesis that contradicts this division of his career. It makes a case for Bonnard's ongoing evolution as an artist of genius, anchored by his love of color and movement, the influence of Oriental art, and a concern for structural approaches of various kinds. In the excellent catalogue, these facets of his life are all persuasively discussed. Still, the very early and very late works look dramatically different.
Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) began his career as a Symbolist, and established himself as one of the founders of the Nabis, or "prophets," in Paris in 1888. Under the influence of Paul Gauguin and inspired by the decorative Japanese prints, they devoted themselves to the simplified yet sophisticated compositions in all forms of art, including prints and screens. Among the group were Maurice Denis, and Paul Sérusier, with Edouard Vuillard and Ker-Xavier Roussel joining slightly later on.
Bonnard made a name for himself (and pocketed his first money as an artist) by winning a poster competition that celebrated champagne. His lines portraying a woman holding a glass of bubbly in his lithograph for "France-Champagne" are as effervescent today as they were in 1891.
In this and other early pieces, Bonnard emphasizes line over color. It is not until he travels to the south of France in 1909 and on many subsequent trips that he gradually incorporates the bright hues of the Impressionists into his works. The limited number of colors that he used with such finesse in prints give way to a carefully knitted skein of vivid hues, even if his varied readings of flattened space à la Cézanne, Degas, Japanese prints and Chinese painting is a constant.
From then until the '20s, he gradually integrates higher keyed hues, using color and tone as substitutes for his earlier reliance on line. And he spends more time painting. The process is not linear, but he moves a great distance during this period.
By the mid- to late '20s, Bonnard's work becomes fully mature. In 1925, he marries to his long-time companion Maria Boursin, called Marthe de Méligny. In 1926, he buys the villa Le Bosquet ("the grove") in Le Cannet, a village above Cannes, which will provide the background for most of his major works to come.
Bonnard's works take on an inner glow as layers of paint vibrate. He employs various viewpoints -- works are read from bottom to top like The Grape Harvest (1926) or in circles like The Palm (1926). He manipulates space to push and pull the eye to add another dimension to his pictures. Without the female figure to give weight to The Palm, a viewer's eyes might fly around and around forever.
In the later works, Bonnard paints one complex experiment after another. Figures are shoved daringly to the edges of compositions, just another element with which to allow areas of color and light convey the essence of mood. In Studio With Mimosas, (1939-46), for example, only a tiny fragment of a head peaks into the painting at the lower left. In a notebook, just before his death, Bonnard noted, "It's not a matter of painting life. It's a matter of giving life to painting."
The Phillips Collection and the Denver Art Museum have organized this stunning and thought-provoking retrospective, containing more than 60 paintings and 70 works in other media. Many pieces come from the Phillips' own holdings, as Duncan Phillips was Bonnard's greatest supporter in the U.S. for many years and established a comprehensive collection of this works. Bonnard said he practiced "intimism," and his works certainly feel at home in the Phillips mansion.
The loans are impressive, too, including photos of the artist with his camera and photographs, some nude, of his companion and later wife dating from around 1900. These will surely be of great interest given the ongoing reassessment of the importance of the photography to painting.
Elizabeth Hutton Turner has curated the show at the Phillips Collection and is responsible for the gorgeous catalogue. This radiant book has close-ups of the paintings. They remind me of the way Franz Kline layered white over black over white over black, but Bonnard used colors. If you cannot manage a visit to the show in Washington, D.C., or Denver, at least treat yourself to the catalogue from Philip Weston Publishers.
Bonnard is one of the few artists whose every work seems fully achieved. It seems to me that there is still room for an even bigger retrospective with an emphasis on the women in his life.
Bonnard came from a well-to-do family but married a working-class woman, who changed her name and whose family he never met. Marthe was his most frequent model and the subject of both his bathtub nude series and a much earlier nude series of photographs that formed the basis of lithographs to illustrate a book. Despite their long life together and many collaborations, we know he had other lovers. One, Renée Monchaty, a young artist and model, committed suicide shortly after he married.
A much smaller exhibition of Bonnard's nudes and self-portraits at the Museum of Modern Art made a powerful impression not long ago. I loved this show, too, but crave another. That's got to be one key measure of a great artist, like Bonnard -- seeing his work and desiring to see it again and again.
"Pierre Bonnard: Early and Late," is on view through Jan. 19, 2003, at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20009, and March 1-May 25, 2003, at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, Denver, C.O. 80204.
N. F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.