Pierre Bonnard: Prints

At the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, June,1990)

A poster advertising France-Champagne shows a curly-haired young woman in a frilly yellow dress leaning forward, holding in her hand a glass of champagne that bubbles over, covering half the page in a in a frothy foam.

This was Bonnard’s first commercial print, made when he was only 22 years old in 1889 – the year of that great symbol of modernity, the Eiffel Tower. All the elements that define the artist’s later greater work are already in place: the stripped-down palette – black, white and yellow – the immediate graphic impact, the wonderful wavy lines that dance across the page, the combination of spontaneity and sophistication, the erotic charge, and the connection to daily life in the modern world – the poster was made to be affixed to walls all over Paris.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) earned 100 francs for the poster – enough to convince his family that he could make a living as an artist.

A brilliant painter, Bonnard also made posters, illustrated books, sheet music, theater programs, made set designs and folding screens. He took great pleasure in what he called “everyday spectacles” of daily life. “Our generation has always looked for the connections between art and life,” Bonnard wrote. Bonnard was a flaneur – stroller of city streets collecting sensations, a connoisseur of fleeting images and ephemeral pleasures. He carried a sketchbook with him everywhere, and jotted down his first rapid impressionism of whatever caught his eye, capturing a pose in a few lines or patches of color. Later, in the studio, he would reconstruct the moment from memory, transforming it into art, refining and distilling them into extraordinarily subtle images that combine a sense of freedom and spontaneity with a heightened sense of artifice — a heightened awareness of the picture as a made thing.

His prints show cafes and music halls and Parisian types – urchins selling newspapers, laundresses trudging through the streets of the city, gentlemen in top hats, matrons, schoolgirls and above all, elegant Parisiennes – elusive, seductive creatures bedecked and be-plumed like exotic birds.

A Parisienne is the subject of the poster that Bonnard designed for La Revue Blanche in 1894 — a woman in an enormous black hat trimmed with white flowers. Her adorable little face peeks out from the velvety blackness of her hat and coat; her big black eyes are rimmed with smoky circles. She stands beside a stack of magazines – La Revue Blanche —  and a sign describing them as en vente partout – on sale everywhere – and she is carrying one in her hand.

Bonnard’s print is a stunning composition in black and white, a charming scene of modern life, and at the same time it aligns itself with the avant-garde, because La Revue Blanche  was the most significant literary journal of its day. Its writers included Ibsen, Andre Gide, Mallarme and Proust, and its covers were designed by Vuillard, Toulouse- Lautrec and other self-consciously modern artists.

One of the Parisiennes, Marthe de Meligny, became his muse, his mistress, and eventually his wife. She appears in his print Woman with an Umbrella in 1894, a charming birdlike creature traipsing through street, a seductive appearance, part of the life of the city. Bonnard drew and painted her in many metamorphoses, and her image gradually came to occupy more and more of his life and his art.

Using a hand-held camera, he staged little private dramas with Marthe, photographing each other nude, and acting out the scenes that he turned into art: the modern woman Marie, Daphnis and Chloe in Arcadia, lesbian lovers in Sappho‘s poetry.

The erotic undercurrent in Bonnard’s work bursts loose in the wonderfully sensual illustrations he made for Verlaine‘s Parallelement, a book exploring the parallel religious and sexual sides of the poet’s nature. Bonnard translated the poetry into images that, like the poems, have an 18th century Rococo flavor – the delicate sanguine rose color refers to Boucher‘s red chalk drawings – but Bonnard’s nudes are much more uninhibited and frank than Boucher’s ever were. Bonnard’s smoldering, dreamy nudes arch and drape themselves voluptuously across the page, swirling and swooning in light, fluttery lines around the written text.

Bonnard’s art is an art of nuance and suggestion and there are many correspondences between his art and the theories of Symbolist poets who published their work in La Revue Blanche. Stephane Mallarme wrote:

“To name an object is to do away with the three-quarters of the enjoyment of the poem that comes from the pleasure of divining it little by little: to suggest it, there’s the dream.”

In his Art Poetique, Paul Verlaine wrote

“You must have music first of all,
and for that a rhythm uneven is best,
vague in the air and soluble,
with nothing heavy and nothing at rest.”

by Rebecca Nemser for rebeccanemser.com

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