Paris in the 1890s was the centre of the modern world. In 1889 the city had staged the Exposition universelle, a world’s fair organised to commemorate the centenary of the French Revolution and to boost the national economy and culture — to mark the event, engineer Gustave Eiffel built his 300-metre tower.
Early work, the Nabis
A number of still lifes, portraits, domestic interiors and street scenes from the 1890s reveal Bonnard’s early talent as a painter who translated his observations of the life around him into highly subjective compositions. Eager to capture striking phenomena for his art, his eyes were continuously moving, literally hunting for new images, transposing into his work the vibrant, irregular rhythm and cultural momentum of Paris.
Bonnard, who had begun to study law in 1887, also attended art classes at the Académie Julian in Paris. With a number of other young art students, he was co-founder of a group called the Nabis (from the Hebrew word for prophets), who sought to foster a new aesthetic — a poetic transposition of form and colour. They particularly admired Paul Gauguin’s expressive use of colour. The Nabis included Paul Sérusier, Ker-Xavier Roussel, Edouard Vuillard, Maurice Denis, Aristide Maillol and Félix Vallotton.
The cosmopolitan spirit and new lifestyle of the city is reflected in work produced at the time by Bonnard and his Nabi friends. They introduced decorative pictorial motifs borrowed from contemporary design; they responded to the bold flat colours of the currently popular Japanese woodblock prints; they were inclined to move between subjects, ranging from images of their fast-moving urban surroundings to quieter scenes of leisure at home or in country retreats. For them, art embraced all areas of human life, including the cultural pursuits of an urban society — literature, theatre, music, dance, photography, applied art, interior design and fashion design.
In 1854 Japan’s two centuries of isolation from the rest of the world came to an end, and the West discovered a completely new aesthetic with the influx of Japanese art and traditional objects. In 1890 in Paris, at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, an exhibition of the history of Japanese woodblock prints featured more than 700 prints from private collections in Paris. The exhibition inspired in Bonnard what would be a life-long interest — he came to be known by his friends as le nabi très japonard (the very Japanese Nabi).
Much later Bonnard recalled the impact of the exhibition:
I realized that colour could express everything, as it did in this exhibition, with no need for relief or texture. I understood that it was possible to translate light, shapes and character by colour alone, without the need for values.
The inspiration of Japanese woodblock prints is apparent in the flat, bold colours and the delineation of forms in Bonnard’s early work, with his cropping of forms a lasting characteristic.
From 1893 onwards the linear style of Bonnard’s early Nabi paintings gradually gave way to a more painterly visual approach. His figures are no longer brought to life with an undulating line; instead their contours have become diffused and sketchy, merging into their surroundings. The broken and fragmented silhouette has become a vehicle for Bonnard to express in a very different way the corporeality and movement of his figures.
This manner of painting is particularly evident in Bonnard’s images of children — a favourite subject since becoming uncle to the children of his sister Andrée and her husband, the composer Claude Terrasse. Drawings and paintings vividly capture movement and sometimes humorous body language. Bonnard’s approach here owes much to the Japanese master Ando (Utagawa) Hiroshige, who explored in his prints the ever-changing poses of people going about their daily lives.
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The Pierre Bonnard works on this page are reproduced with the permission of|
ADAGP, Paris and VISCOPY Ltd, Sydney 2003.