Pierre Bonnard and Japanese Art

Snapshot is part of the National Cherry Blossom Festival, celebrating 100 years of the gift of trees. For readers interested in learning more about the influence of Japan on artists in the exhibition, gallery talks on “Japonisme in France” will be held at 6 and 7 pm this Thursday as part of the Phillips after 5: Journey to Japan event. 

(Left) Woman walking with an umbrella, seen from behind. Reproduction from a Japanese print, published in Le Japon Artistique, March 1891. (Center) Pierre Bonnard, The Little Laundress, 1896. Color lithograph, 11 3/4 x 7 1/2 in. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation) © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. (Right) Attributed to Suzuki Harunobu, 1725-1770. A young woman crossing a snow-covered bridge. Color Woodcut. 1765. The Gale Collection. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

(Left) Woman walking with an umbrella, seen from behind. Reproduction from a Japanese print, published in Le Japon Artistique, March 1891. (Center) Pierre Bonnard, The Little Laundress, 1896. Color lithograph, 11 3/4 x 7 1/2 in. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation) © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. (Right) Attributed to Suzuki Harunobu, 1725-1770. A young woman crossing a snow-covered bridge. Color Woodcut. 1765. The Gale Collection. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Pierre Bonnard was a member of an artistic group called the Nabis, the Hebrew word for prophet. The group, which included Edouard Vuillard and Maurice Denis, were the harbingers of a new way of making art. They broke away from academic tradition to embrace an approach that emphasized decorative unity and a more personal, abstract style. The group members gave each other nicknames; Bonnard’s was “le Nabi très Japonard,” or “the ultra-Japanese Nabi.”

Less than a year after he abandoned law school to pursue a career in art, Bonnard saw a huge exhibition of Japanese prints at the École des Beaux-Arts, where he had been a student. The exhibition featured over a thousand Ukiyo-e woodcuts just when the craze for all things Japanese was at its height in Paris. Bonnard was already looking at Japanese prints at the Goupil Gallery, where Theo van Gogh worked, and bought Japanese prints at a boutique on the Avenue de l’Opera. The prints were available for the equivalent of a few dollars, and Bonnard papered the walls of his studio with them. He purchased works by Hiroshige, Kuniyoshi, and Kunisada.

In Japanese prints, Bonnard found much to inspire him at a key moment in his artistic development: graceful contours, flattened color, asymmetrical compositions, and subjects drawn from everyday life. Bonnard’s The Little Laundress (see above), a color lithograph from 1896, is a prime example of the influence Japanese prints had upon his work. As Colta Ives points out in The Great Wave: The Influence of Japanese Woodcuts on French Prints, the slightly awkward figure with an umbrella, making her way up a street paved with cobblestones, echoes the silhouette of an Ukiyo-e print published in 1891 in Le Japon Artistique (see above), a periodical that Bonnard subscribed to. It also resembles a print by Suzuki Harunobu of a young woman crossing a snow covered bridge (see above). Bonnard found in Japanese art qualities that liberated him from Western conventions of color, form, and composition, creating uniquely intimate, spontaneous works that were aligned with his personal temperament.

Parallel Meanings

 

(Left) Pierre Bonnard, Marthe nude, seated on the bed with her back turned, 1899-1900. Sepia-toned gelatin silver print, 1 1/2 x 2 in. Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Gift of the children of Charles Terrasse, 1992. (Right) Pierre Bonnard, "Eté" (Summer), illustration from Parrallèlement by Verlaine, 1900. Lithograph with rose-sanguine ink, 11 5/8 x 9 5/8 in. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard, features photographs by Pierre Bonnard which served as prompts for book illustrations for Parallèlement, a book of erotic verse by Paul Verlaine published by Ambroise Vollard. As Françoise Heilbrun points out in the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, the pink pencil outline imparts the female body with a kind of “feverish sensuality” that is in keeping with the poems. Surprisingly, the French censors at the Imprimerie Nationale agreed to do the printing, mistakenly thinking that Parallèment was a book on geometry! Using the character of Ubu, a tubby symbol of the French state, Bonnard and his friend, the avant-garde playwright Alfred Jarry, mocked the censors’ initial misunderstanding and their belated awareness of the true nature of the project.

Ubu observes a painting of geometric lines, only to be bowled over upon deciphering what he is really looking at. (Left) Cartoon on page 22 of Alfred Jarry, Almanach illustré du Père Ubu, 1901. Lithograph, page 200 x 285 mm. France, private collection. (Right) Cartoon on page 23 of Alfred Jarry, Almanach illustré du Père Ubu, 1901. Lithograph, page 200 x 285 mm. France, private collection.

 

A World in a 3-inch Square

In this photo, taken by Vuillard, note the camera, likely Bonnard's, sitting on the table, pointed at the viewer. Edouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard in the dining room, Rue des Batignolles, 1897. Gelatin silver print, 3 1/2 x 3 1/2 in. (9 x 9 cm.). Private Collection.

The biggest idea that I took away from our staff tour of Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard, was how experimental, private, and exciting the medium of photography was for these artists. They were not photographers, they were painters. They were men with a passion for visual exploration, enchanted by this easy, instantaneous little device, the snapshot camera. They brought cameras into their homes, took them on trips to the beach, set them on tables in restaurants. They took photos of their children sleeping, their lovers’ gazes, themselves reflected in mirrors, their bustling cities. These images were visual diaries of a sort, little notes about the light of the day, the activities, the emotions. They were never exhibited, occasionally traded, often collected in boxes with letters and other keepsakes. This show brings viewers into the  life of these seven artists, not just with their intimacy, but with the feeling that these memories could belong to any of us.