Pierre Bonnard – The colour of history
In October 1947, the Musée de l’Orangerie arranged a large posthumous exhibition of Bonnard’s work. Towards the close of the year, an article devoted to this exhibition appeared on the first page of the latest issue of the authoritative periodical Cahiers d’Art. The publisher, Christian Zervos, gave his short article the title “Pierre Bonnard, est-il un grand peintre?” (Is Pierre Bonnard a Great Artist?)
In the opening paragraph Zervos remarked on the scope of the exhibition, since previously Bonnard’s work could be judged only from a small number of minor exhibitions. But, he went on, the exhibition had disappointed him: the achievements of this artist were not sufficient for a whole exhibition to be devoted to his work.
“Let us not forget that the early years of Bonnard’s career were lit by the wonderful light of Impressionism. In some respects, he was the last bearer of that aesthetic. But he was a weak bearer, devoid of great talent. That is hardly surprising. Weak-willed, and insufficiently original, he was unable to give a new impulse to Impressionism, to place a foundation of craftsmanship under its elements, or even to give Impressionism a new twist. Though he was convinced that in art one should not be guided by mere sensations like the Impressionists, he was unable to infuse spiritual values into painting. He knew that the aims of art were no longer those of recreating reality, but he found no strength to create it, as did other artists of his time who were lucky enough to rebel against Impressionism at once. In Bonnard’s works, Impressionism becomes insipid and falls into decline.”
It is unlikely that Zervos was guided by any personal animus. He merely acted as the mouthpiece of the avant-garde, with its logic asserting that all the history of modern art consisted of radical movements which succeeded one another, each creating new worlds less and less related to reality. The history of modern art seen as a chronicle of avant-garde movements left little space for Bonnard and other artists of his kind. Bonnard himself never strove to attract attention and kept away altogether from the raging battles of his time.
Besides, he usually did not stay in Paris for any length of time and rarely exhibited his work. Of course, not all avant-garde artists shared Zervos’s opinions. Picasso, for example, rated Bonnard’s art highly in contrast to his own admirer Zervos, who had published a complete catalogue of his paintings and drawings. When Matisse set eyes on that issue of Cahiers d’Art, he flew into a rage and wrote in the margin in a bold hand: “Yes! I maintain that Bonnard is a great artist for our time and, naturally, for posterity. Henri Matisse, Jan. 1948.” Matisse was right. By the middle of the century, Bonnard’s art was already attracting young artists far more than was the case in, say, the 1920s or in the 1930s. Fame had dealt strangely with Bonnard.
He managed to establish his reputation immediately. He never experienced poverty or rejection unlike the leading figures of new painting who were recognized only late in life or posthumously — the usual fate of avant-garde artists in the first half of the twentieth century. The common concept of “peintre maudit” (the accursed artist), a Bohemian pauper who is not recognized and who readily breaks established standards, does not apply to Bonnard. His paintings sold well.
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