Born just outside of Paris, Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), the son of a highly placed bureaucrat in the French War Ministry, was one of the defining figures of modernism in the transitional period between impressionism and modernism. While his family wanted a law career for him, he abandoned his legal studies in 1867 and enrolled in classes at the Academie Julian in Paris, where he became a disciple of Paul Gauguin.
Gauguin’s teaching and his use of expressive color and flattened perspective inspired a group of young painters known as Les Nabis (after the Hebrew words navi or nabi meaning prophet). Bonnard joined the group, which included Edouard Vuillard, Maurice Denis and Paul Serusier, who painted vibrantly patterned, strongly colored subjects from everyday life in a style that came to be known as intimisme.
“Pierre Bonnard: Painting Arcadia” at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco features more than 70 works that span the artist’s career, from his early Nabis masterpieces influenced by Japanese prints to large-scale, decorative panels made for the houses of his patrons.
During his Nabis period Bonnard developed a strong affinity for Japanese art after seeing a large show of prints at Paris’ Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1890. During the rest of that decade, his work was strongly influenced by Japanese aesthetics, which were characterized by formal simplicity, flattened perspectives, vertical formats, asymmetrical compositions and complex patterns.
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His use of these devices in works like “Women in the Garden” and “Twilight: The Croquet Game” led the other Nabis to call him “le nabi tres japonard,” a nickname that rhymes with Bonnard and means “the very Japanesque Nabi.”
The Nabis held their first group exhibit in 1891 but disbanded in the early 20th century, though many of them remained friends afterward. For the rest of his career, Bonnard resisted affiliation with any school, alternating between impressionist and modernist tendencies. As the exhibit at the Legion progresses, his works become more and more radical with overall compositions whose elements are slammed up against the picture plane or seen from varying perspectives. As Esther Bell, curator in charge of European paintings at the Legion notes, the exhibition “will make clear the artist’s role in the history of French modernism.”
Bonnard’s intimisme developed along with his enthusiasm for photography. (The exhibition includes a number of small snapshots of family and friends, including his lifelong companion and eventual wife, Marthe de Méligny.) In his intimate interiors, figures merge with their surroundings in compositions that often have shifting perspectives. In “Woman with a Cat, or the Demanding Cat” in which the cat is ready to pounce on the woman’s fish dinner, the objects on the lower part of the table look as if they are going to slide off onto the floor.
Bonnard’s relationship with Marthe is the focus of the highly erotic “Woman Dozing on a Bed, or the Indolent Woman.” In it, a nude woman, whose face is obscured, lies, with thighs shamelessly spread, on rumpled sheets. In the psychologically fraught “Man and Woman,” Bonnard stands naked on the right while Marthe plays with a kitten on the bed to the left, a screen in the center of the painting separating them into their private worlds.
Some of Bonnard’s most suggestive paintings are of Marthe in the bath or in a dressing room, where the luxurious decor reveals or hides her naked body, framed by a doorway, reflected in mirrors, seen through transparent water in tubs some have said resemble porcelain sarcophagi. In one of the most famous, “Nude in the Bathtub” we see only her lower torso and long legs shimmering in a capacious tub, her outline dissolving into delicate hues. Bonnard began this alternately gorgeous and somewhat disturbing series in 1925 when a former mistress committed suicide a few weeks after he married Marthe.
Throughout his career Bonnard painted many self-portraits, among them a dashing oil sketch of a handsome young artist who transforms in later works to an increasingly fragile figure, distant, bespectacled in one, in another painful image completed when he was 64, as a weak, has-been boxer with scrawny arms and an anxious expression on his face.
Yet there is an intensely joyful feeling to many of his paintings, among them poetic tapestries like “The Large Garden” and radiant scenes of the French Riviera, where he bought a small house at Le Cannet that had a panoramic vista he painted with radical perspectives that pose multiple viewpoints on a single surface.
Some of his most famous works are monumental decorative murals depicting scenes from paradise that combine contemporary figures with imaginary and mythological beings in Arcadian landscapes. Commissioned for the dining room of his faithful friend and patron Misia Edwards, they include the murky “Water Games,” the idyllic “Pleasure” and the whimsical “After the Flood,” with a bestiary ranging from an armadillo to a frisky elephant. They are eccentric works, each banded with a border of monkeys and magpies stealing pearls.
More to my taste are two large panels commissioned by the critic George Besson, depicting an animated street scene, “La Place de Clichy,” and a night scene in a cafe, both emblematic works of Paris, an urban Arcadia saturated with color, light and action.
The show, which was organized by the Musee D’Orsay in Paris, the Fundacion MAPFRE in Madrid and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, is the first major international exhibition of Bonnard’s work to be mounted on the West Coast in half a century. You won’t want to miss it.
While you are at the Legion, don’t forget to stop and see Raphael’s “Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn.” The 16th-century masterpiece, on loan from the Galleria Borghese in Rome, epitomizes the Renaissance virtues of balance and harmony and has been compared to Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa.”
Pierre Bonnard: Painting Arcadia
Where: Legion of Honor, Lincoln Park, 34th Avenue and Clement Street, San Francisco
When: Through May 15. 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday.
Cost: $10-$20, includes general admission, children 5 and under are free.
Information: 415-750-3600; www.legionofhonor.org