“I agree with you that the painter’s only solid ground is the palette and colors, but as soon as the colors achieve an illusion, they are no longer judged and the stupidities begin.”– Bonnard to Matisse, 1935
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. Weakwilled, 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 recognised 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 recognised and who readily breaks established standards, does not apply to Bonnard. His paintings sold well. Quite early in his career he found admirers, both artists and collectors. However, they were not numerous. General recognition, much as he deserved it, did not come to him for a considerable time. Why was it that throughout his long life Bonnard failed to attract the public sufficiently? Reasons may be found in his nature and his way of life. Bonnard rarely appeared in public, even avoiding exhibitions.
For example, when the Salon d’Automne expressed a desire in 1946 to arrange a large retrospective exhibition of his work, Bonnard responded to this idea in the following way: “A retrospective exhibition? Am I dead then?” Another reason lay in Bonnard’s art itself: not given to striking effects, it did not evoke an immediate response in the viewer. The subtleties of his work called for an enlightened audience. There is one further reason for the public’s cool attitude towards Bonnard. His life was very ordinary; there was nothing in it to attract general interest.
In this respect, it could not be compared with the life of Van Gogh, Gauguin or Toulouse-Lautrec. Bonnard’s life was not the stuff legends are made of. And a nice legend is what is needed by the public, which easily creates idols of those to whom it was indifferent or even hostile only the day before. But time does its work. The attitude towards Bonnard’s art has changed noticeably in recent years. The large personal exhibitions which took place in 1984-85 in Paris, Washington, Zurich and Frankfurt-am-Main had a considerable success and became important cultural events…
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