The intense freshness of “the first moving instant vision” provoked by an object. But actually to copy that object increased the distance from that vision. There is always the danger,Pierre Bonnard felt, of the artist’s becoming caught by the incidentals of direct, immediate sight and losing the initial vision along the way. Hence, although he was more capable than anyone of catching what he saw, Bonnard always painted from memory: not by sight but, literally by heart.
“Bonnard’s painting process links multiple layers of memory to the accumulation of paint, weaving almost knitted surfaces or, as he put it, “a painting is a series of marks that join together…” Working from loose sketches and watercolors, he painted largely from memory, concerned that the painting be distinctively separate from the initial, often distracting, experience of reality. As a result, many canvases evince well-worked surfaces from his protracted efforts to color his recollections and feelings about a scene.” ( Greg Lindquist )
Perhaps this explains why, whereas the work of most talented painters is beautiful, that of Bonnard might more appropriately be called happy. It is also like stepping into an enchanted land where all is light, from which hard edges are banned, and where-in the words of Degas-”nothing weighs or rests heavily.” Bonnard’s paintings always look broad and open, like a pair of welcoming arms, a fragrant fenceless garden , or a hospitable table decked with good things.
But if we consider it attentively, we shall find that this happiness is a strange one. Is naiveté its secret? One would swear so when one hears Bonnard say, “My chair always has a missing leg!” The we discover another more sophisticated remark: “The mistakes are sometimes what gives life to a picture.” Or take Bonnard’s colors: they appear radiant, yet upon closer inspection you will find they are quite impure, and if compared with, say, those of the Fauves, downright dirty; just as the artist himself managed to appear elegant although he bought his clothes second hand.
Bonnard’s harmonies are superb, but when analyzed , we realize that they should result in dissonances. Again, you may attribute your delight in Bonnard’s world of painting to the fact that it is purely imaginary, remembering his remark that “One must lie.” Or again, you may decide that his charm is a kind of belated impressionism, based on the play of light on reality, until you realize that-quite absurdly- in his pictures the sun can be dark and darkness sunny.
These contradictions are precisely the source of Bonnard’s special quality. “I float between intimism and decoration,” he once confided-that is, between faithfulness to reality and free-play of the imagination. Bonnard’s painting floats; it is suspended, liberated from gravity-which occurs only when two equal attractions cancel each other. Bonnard is between: between two centuries, between reality and abstraction, between awareness and dream.
The surrealists painted dreams as if they were real; Bonnard painted reality as if it were a dream. All things remain identical to themselves, but are lifted into a state of suspension- exactly as in that state of floating between waking and sleep. Where does the room end and the garden begin? The shimmering vibrant summer is everywhere. People move about, like silent shadows on the drowsy pool of well-being. More surmised than seen, the cupboard, the maid, the dog, only gradually emerge from the warm haze. And then, of a sudden, all things separate and fr
into their proper place: we are awake, purposeful, limited. Day and dream now go their separate ways.
So bright, so youthful was the summer which sang in his canvases, louder with every passing year, that the death of the old painter with the delicate throat, on January 23, 1947, passed practically unnoticed. On the day of his funeral, the sunny Cote d’Azur suffered one of its rare snowstorms.
Bonnard was to become the victim of a worse irony yet. To understand it, we must go back a few years. In January, 1942, his wife died. A few months after, on the bad advice of friends, he forged a will for Marthe, according to which the deceased had made him her heir. Of course, Marthe had never owned anything. But they had married under community property regulations: some unexpected claimant among relatives on her side might turn up. To avoid bother, Bonnard committed the fraud. Never was there a more naive criminal. He did not even think of disguising his own hand when he signed her name, and he dated the documents of the posthumous day when he wrote it.
Bonnard died untroubled, and thereupon the descendants of his brother and sister claimed the fabulous legacy he had left in his possession: some six hundred paintings; a large number of gouaches and water colors, and thousands of drawings. A few months later, however, there appeared on the scene two nieces of Marthe, the Bowers sisters, whom even the late artist may never have heard of. They were ferreted out by an efficient genealogist. At any rate, they now claimed the heritage on the ground that Bonnard had forfeited his rights through his falsification; and so, they contended, had the heirs on his side, by not denouncing the fraud.
A lawsuit began in 1947 and the contents of his studio were impounded. The law, which Bonnard had cavalierlyrun out on as a student, now got its revenge. The courts in their wisdom decreed that all paintings completed before Marthe’s death were indeed joint property, but not those unfinished or not yet begun at that time. But how was one to determine when a Bonnard picture is finished, considering that he would sneak into museums in order to retouch old works? Several of his oils were repainted twenty years after their “completion.”
To clear up the imbroglio, experts were appointed and interminable discussions begun about the “moral right” of the artist to hold onto his work. One court broke the other’s decision. New suits were initiated. One of the clans optioned off its prospective shares of the inheritance to various art dealers who began suing each other. Some members of one party deserted it to strike up an alliance with the rival party. Some of the contestants, now middle aged an embittered, were the innocent children whom Bonnard had portrayed some forty years earlier: What better proof could he have found of the horror of growing up? Even more ironic, was the master, who had lived by the maxim, “Our God is light” , found a good portion of his work buried in the darkness of a safe, in the Chase Manhattan Bank in Paris.
ADDENDUM: (Time Magazine):
In the eyes of many Frenchmen, the worst thing famed Painter Pierre Bonnard ever did was to make an honest woman of his pink, satin-skinned model, Marthe de Meligny. When, in 1930, after living with Marthe for more than a quarter-century, Bonnard marched her down to the mayor’s office and married her, he set in motion the grinding machinery of French law which finally crushed him and threatened every creative artist in the nation.
To begin with, Marthe had to sign the marriage register with her less aristocratic real name of Maria Boursin. Embarrassed at having to reveal her humble origins to her husband, she told a little lie; she swore that she had no living relatives. …
…Since his brilliant, luminous canvases were even then bringing up to $10,000 each, an estate of several million dollars was involved. Bonnard’s friends were gloomy; in their opinion there was no escape from the basic French law of “community of goods,” and in time of war, with half France occupied by the Nazis, Vichy government officials would certainly sell his goods to pay Marthe’s inheritance taxes. If only she had left a will!…
…This decision set up a cultural clamor. Feelings were heightened by the action of the divorced wife of Painter Andre Derain, who, suing for her share of the “community of goods,” had sequestered Derain’s studio and denied him access to a painting he was still working on. As sometimes happens in France, popular feeling outweighed the rigidities of law. Last week a court of appeal in Orleans reversed the decision of the Court of Cassation, handed down a final verdict awarding Bonnard’s property to his own heirs….As the verdict was announced, some 100 painters and writers in the courtroom broke into cheers. Their rights as creators were finally recognized. Henceforth, a painting or a manuscript is no longer a piece of household furniture, and an unfinished work cannot be sold against the creator’s will.