New York

Pierre Bonnard

Acquavella Galleries show a selection of largely unknown Pierre Bonnards from the Bowers collection (the heirs of Madame Bonnard), part of the tidy parcel excised out of the long-contested Bonnard Estate. The works range from the proto-Art Nouveau of the 1890s through the dazzling late work produced in the last two decades of the master’s life.

One of the teasing questions connected with Bonnard is, for all his Post-Impressionist carryover, why does he appear so fresh and vital, so contemporary? Certainly today’s art establishment cares not a jot for Intimist props (perhaps with the exception of George Segal). And while Bonnard grows out of the theory surrounding the optical mixture of “pure” color central to Impressionism, our prophylactic optics is of an objectively perceptual nature which often succeeds best in diagrammatic works of black and white (e.g. Bridget Riley). One proof of how new Old Bonnard seems can easily be demonstrated. Match a random late Bonnard against a late Vuillard. Though once comrades, the late Vuillard appears dowdy, timid and arid.

At the first level the answer to the Bonnard riddle is easy. Simply because he remained a superb painter throughout his life whose sensuous incantations grew even more bewitching as he grew older. Sheer quality, therefore, keeps him fixed at the forefront. He remains model and master. But this reply, for all of its self-evidence, really lets the question go begging. There are other qualities, particularly of surface, which directly allies Bonnard with trends realized shortly after his death in 1947 and to whose development he may have contributed, possibly without any sense of conscious debt on the part of the younger working artists.

The answer must begin in the works themselves. The color of late Bonnard is characterized by rapid, adjacent shifts from hot to cool. The paint is applied gently in thin acidulated stains. Slowly the surface builds into planes (but not facets) that vary from soft to hard, from aerated to dense. Bonnard’s “crunchy” drawing is wholly “inaccurate”––that is, it’s a spontaneous outgrowth of a painterly experience, of a near-witless directness and innocence. (True, the result is often headily perfumed, too fruity, but even a small amount of time will soften much of its raw stridencies.) The canvas, under the tremulous brushes of Old Bonnard, is transformed into a throbbing skin whose delicate pulsations, swaying shifts and shimmering intermeshings, paradoxically deny the sudden bird’s-flight entries into the picture plane. The space of the camera lens is replaced by a space of planes and registers like a folding screen. The tentative drawing, the hesitant application of turped-out paint, are foils to the often aggressive sensibility of Bonnard.

In recent painting there is no one more intrepid where it concerns throwing impasted violets into yellow-green fields; less cautious about complementary or triadical color exchanges; more casual in the arrangement of large shape areas; more brusque in contrasting soft, anonymous surface with glancing brushy highlights. In a word, no one more intuitive. Bonnard had already achieved the watchword conception of contemporary painting, the transformation of the surface into the field. Admittedly the fields often had small perimeters, yet they are as friable and tender as the luminous fields of, say, Mark Rothko or Morris Louis. Unlike his Nabi colleagues, whose prophecy was concerned with flat, symbolically construed decorativeness, the really prophetic in Bonnard was the promise of his old age.

Robert Pincus-Witten