Words by David Molesky and Scout Opatut // Conversation with Curator Esther Bell

Odd Nerdrum once told me the story of a crazy man attempting to destroy a painting by Pierre Bonnard in his permanent collection. It turned out that the crazy man was, in fact, the great French painter himself, who never felt that his pictures were finished. Bonnard was notorious for carrying around a miniature painting box, discreetly hidden in his coat pocket. When he was invited into the homes of his collectors, said paint box in tow, he would sneak around, hoping to retouch his paintings, and if caught, his excuse was that the painting needed to be repaired.

Ironically, the same museum that arrested him also gave him his last large retrospective, until now. One wonders what, if anything, Bonnard would change at the first major retrospective of his work on the West Coast in over half a century, which will be hosted this February by Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco at the Legion of Honor. This enormous survey of the 20th century master, Bonnard: Painting Arcadia, includes over sixty works, including his early and later periods, as well as some of his personal photography. The Legion is the exhibition’s sole venue in the Americas.

For a man who preferred to be out of the spotlight, Bonnard has proved to be one of the most controversial artists of the twentieth century. Bonnard has always been difficult to locate in the exponentially-expanding world of “isms.” Not acknowledged as a modernist, many critics, and even some of his contemporaries, questioned the legitimacy of his work. The title of a 1947 article in Cahiers d’Art went so far as to ask: “Is Pierre Bonnard a great artist?”

Bonnard was, in many respects, unlike many of the more well-known artists of his day. His painting process was by no means efficient. Often layered with innumerable sessions, Bonnard’s paintings aimed to capture his moods and life within the intimate spaces he shared. The end outcome was, therefore, a product of his very personal process, not a product in itself. There were no one-liners, gimmicks, no ulterior motives. His level of authenticity stretched as far as the sizes of his canvases, which he would determine only as a painting reached its conclusion, often opting to crop or even sew on an additional piece of fabric.

The elusive qualities found in Bonnard’s work can only emerge when an artist takes the plunge, dangerously, blending the boundaries of his own life with his work. And yet, for an introvert such as he was, the question still lingers: who was Pierre Bonnard? Most written accounts are full of contradiction, emphasizing depth and mystery, followed by statements describing his simplicity and graspability. But there is nothing simple about a man painting the most intimate aspects of his life, especially when what we do know is that it was anything but simple. Bonnard dropped out of law school to pursue art. In his early years, he was a member of the Nabis (from the Hebrew word meaning prophet), a group of rebellious, fringe painters from the Académie Julian who shunned the standard rules of Impressionism, instead finding influence in Paul Gauguin’s aesthetics, primitive art, and in Japanese woodblock prints. When an interviewer at one of the earliest group exhibitions asked him to name his favorite painters, he refused to do so, refusing allegiance to any particular school. He began painting advertising commissions for France-Champagne. Bonnard not only inspired Toulouse-Lautrec, but also made an introduction to his printer, Ancours, in whose shop the infamous Moulin Rouge poster was printed later that year.


Eventually, the Nabis disbanded and Bonnard chose to work in greater privacy, despite his established notoriety, avoiding other contemporary artists for the most part. This seclusion from the mainstream art world allowed him to delve deeper into subject matter more intimate and contemplative in nature. Not interested in the manifesto-heavy, individualized spirit of the more popular avant-garde movements, Bonnard’s paintings evoke intimacy, atmosphere and moods. For this reason, Nerdrum calls Bonnard the “kitsch end to impressionism,” and points to Bonnard’s representation of sentimentality and human experience as being unique within the lineage of Impressionism, particularly in his melancholic handling of portraiture and human figures. Impressionists like Monet intentionally explored their motifs through series of paintings, while Bonnard’s process was driven by emotional intuition from beginning to end, projecting an honest way that many, more commercially-minded have undervalued.

In fact, one of Bonnard’s most outspoken naysayers during his lifetime was none other than Picasso, arguably the first famous artist to become a conveyor belt. Despite his blue and rose periods being quite in line with Bonnard, when Picasso abandoned his earlier figurative painting to chase at the heels of newer, more stylistic art movements, he also renounced respect for the personal nature of Bonnard’s work. Ever the modernist, Picasso was cranking out works and essentially putting his stamp on commercially-available prepared canvases. Bonnard, on the other hand, could never work within the confines of a rigidly set rectangular dimension, choosing instead to tack a large canvas to his wall and figure out the shape when the painting was done. Picasso once famously mocked Bonnard for not being in vogue, calling him “a piddler” and asserting that his works were mere depictions of decorative interiors.

A similar butting of ideological heads often pervades our contemporary figurative movement. Today’s representational painters find themselves striving to define artistic values that often oppose fashionable contemporary paradigm.

Suffice it to say, the selection of works in Bonnard: Painting Arcadia blunts Picasso’s criticism. Bonnard’s paintings, far from being mere depictions of decorative interiors, are full of intimate stories and sincerity: Marthe, his longtime muse (who would eventually become his wife), is often painted in her everyday glory, not made to pose, but studied as she bathes or lounges in their shared moments. However seemingly quotidian these paintings of Marthe in the bath and around the house, behind them lies an even more sobering reality of the complex nature of love—and in this case, the love triangle that led Bonnard’s other mistress, Renée Monchaty, to commit suicide when he married Marthe. In his L’Homme et la Femme (Man and Woman), Bonnard paints three figures in the bedroom: Marthe and himself on either side, both nude, and between them a large, dark, folded screen—a heavy gap between the lovers, even in their most intimate space. We need no further evidence of a man deeply conflicted with himself than Bonnard’s self-portrait, The Boxer, in which a frail but feisty looking Bonnard punches himself in the chest. What we cannot see in his eyes, which are not visible to us, we do see in dramatic use and placement of color. The many bright shades of yellow and green abound to create a tense energy, and the deep red hues roiling his complexion give the impression of a heated temperament, dramatically so against the cool blue of a wall barely in frame.

Similarly, what is unknown about Bonnard himself can be understood by looking at his process, the way he solved problems, how he saw the world and how he related to it. In the same way, when we look at other artists from the distant past, they are some of the most tangible personalities. We feel as if we know them.

To get to know Bonnard more, and to get more insight about the exhibition as it makes its trans-Atlantic and trans-continental journey to the West Coast, I contacted Esther Bell, curator in charge of European Paintings at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

David Molesky: What are the benefits of presenting all of the genres of Bonnard’s work together in one exhibition? What comprehension does this invite?
Esther Bell: This exhibition purposefully adopts a thematic rather than chronological approach. We celebrate such themes as Bonnard’s bathers, his scenes of Southern France, his interiors, and his early Nabi works. By looking at the full range of his production, we hope to tease out the meaning of Arcadia for him. Arcadia is a complex notion: one that suggests great beauty and verdant nature, but one that also reminds us of death and melancholy.


However brief, The Nabis were such an inspired movement in art, at a very critical time in French modernism. In retrospect, what do you think is their lasting impact?
The Nabis formed during the wake of Impressionism, yet they eschewed that movement’s approach to composition and perspective. Instead, they were drawn to flattened and abstracted forms, verticality, and patterns. There is a really interesting connection to be made between Bonnard, Sérusier, and Denis and such artists as R.B. Kitaj or Sigmar Polke, for instance.

Do you think it’s fair to say that Bonnard and his work have been misunderstood, or misrepresented, by art historians in the past? If so, what does this exhibition hope to clarify?
There have been varying critical assessments of Bonnard’s work, particularly because of his treatment and representation of his female models. Linda Nochlin, for instance, wrote: “I am so repelled by the melting of flesh-and-blood model into the molten object of desire of the male painter that I want to plunge a knife into the delectable body-surface.” I think Bonnard’s work is challenging because of its intensity. Though these luscious, vibrant, rich paintings at first might seem simply beautiful, I expect our visitors will be surprised by their profound complexity.

Can you speak a little bit to the title of the exhibition, namely what is unique to the Arcadia that Bonnard painted?
One of the curators of the exhibition, Guy Cogeval (Director of the Musée d’Orsay), writes that Arcadia is Ariadne’s thread that unites all of Bonnard’s production. Bonnard was born into privilege. He had many lovers. He had many homes. He was undeniably successful. But Bonnard’s journey for fulfillment, which is the subject of many of these paintings, is ultimately tinged with sadness. This, after all, is the true meaning of Arcadia. Et in Arcadia Ego. Even in Arcadia, death looms.

Pierre Bonnard: Painting Arcadia, is on view at The Legion of Honor in San Francisco through May 15, 2016.


Originally published in the March, 2016 issue of Juxtapoz Magazine, available in our webstore.