Bonnard: Drawing Color, Painting Light
This essay is posted on the occasion of Pierre Bonnard: The Late Interiors at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, January 27 to April 19, 2009, and continues a series at artcritical of significant statements by distinguished living artists on historic forebears that relate to current exhibitions. The text here is a version of comments delivered by Nickson as part of a panel discussion about Bonnard which he moderated at the New York Studio School (where he is Dean) on Tuesday, February 18th. Nickson’s guests on the panel were Svetlana Alpers, Jack Flam and Richard Kendall.
A consummate painter, Bonnard’s painterly surfaces appear to breath color. They inhale and exhale color-spaces, made by a remarkable range of thick or thin, fat or lean, brushed or wiped marks on white, oil-primed unstretched canvas that needed the resistance of a solid wall behind it. This approach to the variety and diversity of his paint marks can be found in his range of marks drawn in his small works on paper.
Surprisingly, Bonnard’s whole enterprise is dependent on its beginning: specifically, the graphic translation of his “first” possession of a moment, a moment both poignant to him as being a potential painting, and a personal incident or experience.
It is in these small drawings that Bonnard commits to paper his obsession with content and color through a myriad of diverse marks. His hand was observed to move rapidly over the surface of drawing paper, the small stub of a soft pencil hidden by his large hands. It was as though his pencil’s point was his eye taking in the significant data. These small drawings allowed access to spaces where it would have been almost impossible to take an easel and canvas, namely those tight spaces of his Le Cannet bathroom, bedroom, dining room, or balcony. The paintings that depict these spaces are made credible by his physical presence squeezed up against a wall or door, or even in the bathtub itself. It is when we think about our own space as viewer in his paintings that we are rewarded with a surprise of location.
There is a sense of the picture plane, beginning on the bridge of our nose, much in the way reading glasses change the way we see, resting on the nose, looking over, looking through and looking at our own nose itself. Could it be that Bonnard’s pince-nez triggered this vision?
In the in-focus, out-of-focus drawings and paintings of Bonnard, the deep space is flattened, near forms are volumetric, and the negative spaces operate as both flat and spatial simultaneously. All this is made more apparent through the possible subtle use of his eye-glasses shifting positions.
It is with a single adjustment of his spectacle frames that he could see, say, a bunch of grapes, flattened and unified, and then, conversely, volumetric and spatial, with the individual grapes revealed, and the apex of the nearest grape to the painter’s eye defined.
Human monocular and bifocal vision is very different to the action of the camera lens. In fact, Bonnard’s paintings get much more complex spatially when he gives up using the camera around 1920, and relies more and more on his drawings as the wellspring for his ideas and images. Bonnard states: “The lens records unnecessary lights and shadows, (whereas) the artist’s eye adds human value to objects.”
By committing facts to a small paper rectangle, rather than to a medium canvas as others have done, he was able to successfully use multiple, yet subtle, viewpoint shifts and adjustments by moving his head slightly and keeping his periphery in reserve whilst tackling the centers of his vision. He avoids, however, the fish-eye lens distortion by using a conceptual “imaginary grid” held somewhere in the area of entry into the nearest space into the painting or drawing.
In many works we have a strong feeling that we are “in” the space of the represented image. That nearness is a very strong element in a lot of the work. We are taking tea with Marthe, we are passing the cream to her, we are taking the bread roll from the basket, an apple from the compotier. Even in the self-portrait we are rinsing the safety razor. In “Young Woman in the Garden,” (1921-23, 1945-46, Private Collection) we are looking down on Renee Monchaty upon being introduced to her at the garden table. We experience the “frisson” of a significant encounter.
Bonnard kept his drawings close to him, and rarely let any out his studio. They were the key to his paintings. It is surprising how close some of the drawings are to the actual larger works, given the fact that he was exploring the size and dimensions of the rectangle, with the stretchers made only later, when the final size of the canvas had been determined by trial and error.
It is in the later drawings that we see him using an innovative lexicon of marks, which are made up of loops, squiggles, spirals, dots, dashes, ticks, circles, crosses, zeds and horizontals, diagonals, and vertical variants. These variable marks constitute a language for him to “speak” to the image and color. In the rarest of circumstances, black and white can suggest or imply color. One thinks of certain Van Gogh drawings for example, where the intensity of the black against the white has a color potential. If we look at a lot of Bonnard’s later drawings, the landscapes in particular, we feel the potential of these marks as metaphoric of certain color. Most importantly, the marks held information for Bonnard. The drawings carry form and space, a sense of scale, and of course, image. Bonnard would use an eraser to add to the confection of space opening up forms. Often, the drawings have a density of application and a highly charged intensity of feeling. Nearly always the late drawings have context — that is, a subject of enquiry and its context relative to its environs. The marks also have a different pace of viewing; certain marks make us speed up while others slow us down and, as we travel in the boundaries of the drawing, we exercise our visual understanding.
It is clear that these working drawings could be used over a long period of time. People don’t age in drawings. Fruit doesn’t rot. Flowers don’t wilt. Bonnard constantly refers to these drawings “to avoid going off-track when executing the work itself” (Joëts)
For Bonnard drawing was sensation, and taking possession of the image. The next step was the translation of these notations into color, not local color, but the color that came from his interior logic. The sensation and its perceptual basis change mysteriously into the concept or the idea of color.
This process is continued like a board game, with Bonnard playing both sides: Color A countering the thrust of color Z, etc. Color chess with the board itself, like an invisible grid, functioning to keep the wildest of moves in relation to the rectangle. The painting uses localized color as a springboard to a far more unique and surprising equivalent. Reflected color often plays a significant role. It is the color in the shadows, rather than the color in the light that depicts Bonnard’s highly original color variants and ensembles.
For the colorist, often the great challenge (much like the great comedic actor wanting to play a great role of tragedy, Chaplin playing Hamlet, so to speak!) is to make both black and white operate on a color level. Both famously banned from palettes new and old, the risk is persuasive. Bonnard’s constant range of meanings allows us to consider his successful use of both black and white in the The White Interior (1932) and The French Window (1932,). His desire for black and white surrounded by rich color is documented. The white and black frequently resound against saturated cadmium reds and apricot yellows, sapphire blues and viridian greens. One can also think of the symbolic nature of both black and white: white, the metaphor for the origins of the work, the paper, the canvas ground, or primed support; black, the instrument of decision, the color associated with drawing, the color of ink, charcoal and graphite.
In The French Window, we are witnessing a representation of the entire process of the act of creation of the idea as well as seeing the completed painting, all in one work. It is a revealing and great work of Bonnard, and to see it helps us to understand his quest. We see Bonnard experiencing for the first time his sensation, conceiving the first idea of the painting as image whilst looking at his model, Marthe. She is opposite him, the back of her head towards us, her face being viewed by the artist, who is probably drawing her at that moment on a small piece of paper, all of this takes place in the mirror, whilst we the viewers also see Marthe in front of the mirror as Bonnard would have seen her in front of him, intensely absorbed in a specific act of mixing or stirring a bowl tilted in front of her. In the painting, the clarity of the figure of Marthe is noticeably particular and detailed. It is only after carefully observing the “final” marks describing Marthe looking at the bowl (and looking inward at the same time, reflecting whilst being reflected) and describing the vitality of her hands grasping the bowl and mixing the ingredients that we realize their source – pencil incisions, scratched and etched into the paint. Defining the head’s expression and tilt, Bonnard uses the graphite and charcoal along with the pigments of color. We find charcoal again amidst colored oils in “TheWhite Interior,” a painting with a myriad of different whites, and a multitude of spaces, and a floor mysteriously turning into a crouching figure. Bonnard uses charcoal marks as final marks in and on top of the paint film to modify and control the flow of space.
It is with these simple actions that Bonnard reveals his philosophy. In Self-Portrait (1938-40) the left spectacle lens has a small, very powerful negative shape of light isolated by the frame of the glasses. Bonnard’s eye literally views light in a ying-yang, color-chiaroscuro confrontation. Next to this is a barely perceptible, yet significant, sharp mark of depiction of the spectacle frame’s edge – it is a pencil mark embodied in the paint.
It is as if in the long process of making the work, Bonnard cannot help reminding us of the origins of its conception. He turns this simple act of drawing on the surface of the color into a realization of the synergy of the painting’s being, both conceived and closed by drawing. Yet, it is his highly inventive drawing marks, made on the brink of creation of his idea and transformed into his own original color, that allow Bonnard to let his own light enter our space.