When Duncan Phillips founded the Phillips Collection in 1921, his idea was to create a place where modern art mingled with the great masters of previous centuries — a place where people “linger as long as they can for art’s special sort of pleasure.” Between 1925 and 1954, Duncan Phillips achieved this balance of masters and moderns when he assembled one of the largest and most distinct collections of Pierre Bonnard in America. Today, Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), the French avant-garde painter, is again quite at home in the lovely rooms of the Phillips in Washington, D.C.
Now showing is Pierre Bonnard: Early and Late, an exuberant exhibition that wows upon each visit. The show features more than 100 of the artist’s works — including paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, and sculpture. The collection is both aesthetically pleasing and intimate, while highlighting the extensive range of Bonnard’s talents. As the museum notes:
Bonnard reversed the traditional roles of line and color, giving color primacy as the organizing principle to structure his compositions. . . . The result renders many of Bonnard’s paintings incomprehensible when viewed closely: what from a distance appears to be a recognizable interior, up close becomes an incoherent collection of paint marks.
Bonnard’s out and out fascination and experience with color is on display here. The show starts with his massive three-panel screen (detail below) — fiery red frames a marabout (stork), flowers, and four green frogs — and travels to his kaleidoscopic scenes of women in bathtubs.
The museum uses Bonnard’s daubs and strokes of color to connect (and bridge the gaps between) his early and late works. Of the early paintings on display, “Checked Blouse; Portrait of Mme Claude Terrasse, the Artist’s Sister” (1892), “Woman with Dog” (1891, pictured below), and “The Omnibus” (1895) are the best. “Checked Blouse” and “Woman with Dog” illustrate his most ambitious and inventive use of color per square inch, and “The Omnibus” exemplifies Bonnard’s technique of blurring while maintaining lines through the unconventional application of color. There are also many examples of Bonnard’s success with posters, book illustrations, and theater designs, including “France-Champagne” (1891), “Reverie” (1894), and “La Revue blanche” (1894).
These early works illustrate that as a young artist, Bonnard was already fighting off the inclination of the art world (and its critics) to label his work in specific terms and group it in certain genres. They also illustrate Bonnard’s exposure to great artists and writers of his day.
While a law student in Paris he pursued studies in art at the Académie Julian and the École des Beaux-Arts. He enjoyed the work of his teachers Edouard Vuillard and Ker-Xavier Roussel, was fond of the symbolist theories of Paul Gauguin and the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, and was inspired by Japanese art. Contrary to popular belief, Bonnard was not the last of the Impressionists, nor was he ever one. He once divulged, “I do not belong to any school. I am only trying to do something personal, and I am trying to unlearn, at this moment, what I worked so hard to learn during the four years at the École des Beaux-Arts.” His fascination with unlearning may be what kept his work so pure and new.
From Bonnard’s middle years the Phillip’s presents a collection of photographs of his beloved wife Marthe. I’m not sure these pieces have been on view all that often — but they should become a standard part of all future Bonnard exhibitions. The photographs are so much the opposite of Bonnard’s paintings. In a way, as others have pointed out, the photographs almost act as practice sketches — it is clear the artist was fascinated with the feminine form and Marthe was most certainly his muse. The quality of these photographs is outstanding. They are simple shots of Marthe in the garden; a majority of them are of her posing in the nude in tasteful ways. Her white body is statuesque. There is one particularly beautiful one of her wearing a nightgown that almost seems translucent in the sunlight.
Bonnard’s later works are appropriately saved for the end. The most impressive are at the very end — the artist’s almost haunting bathtub nudes. The blues and oranges and pinks — daubs and dots and cubes and splashes of color melt into the canvas when looked at from a far. Up close the color is even more vibrant. Pinks become variants of fuchsia; opaque blues turn into hues of the Mediterranean Sea.
Pierre Bonnard: Early and Late can be summed up in one word: spectacular.