Pierre Bonnard and Japanese art: Examining the inner

Pierre Bonnard and Japanese art: Examining the inner

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times

Pierre Bonnard was born in 1867 in France. Hence, he was born one year before the Meiji Restoration in Japan. His father had hoped that Bonnard would become a barrister but clearly, Bonnard was destined for the art world. In the early 1890s Bonnard met the enigmatic Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and throughout this decade his art would develop greatly.

Bonnard said, “The artist who paints the emotions creates an enclosed world… the picture… which, like a book, has the same interest no matter where it happens to be. Such an artist, we may imagine, spends a great deal of time doing nothing but looking, both around him and inside him.” 

In 1890 it is reported that Bonnard truly came into touch with Japanese art despite first admiring this art form in the late 1880s. From this point onwards the richness of Japanese ukiyo-e remained within his artistic soul. Hence, Bonnard would collect Japanese art throughout the rest of his life.

Other artists who adored Japanese ukiyo-e includes Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Pierre Auguste-Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Mary Cassatt, and other artists including James Abbot McNeill Whistler. Therefore, Bonnard was following in the footsteps of many artists outside of Japan who fell in love with the rich traditions of ukiyo-e.

Bonnard said, “Painting has to get back to its original goal, examining the inner lives of human beings.” He also commented, Art will never be able to exist without nature” and “You cannot possibly invent painting all by yourself.”

Bonnard was a member of an important artistic group during the most formative years of his art. This group was called Nabis which means prophet in the Hebrew language. Other significant members of Nabis include Maurice Denis and Edouard Vuillard. The artists within this group were inspired by new thinking and different approaches to art. Therefore, a personal and extremely decorative style was “set in stone” within an abstract style.

The nickname of Bonnard highlights his love of Japanese art because he was called the “le Nabi tres Japonard.” Of course, Bonnard cherished this name because it means “the ultra-Japanese Nabi.” Also, his art studio was further evidence of the power of ukiyo-e because individuals who visited him noted paintings by Hiroshige, Kunisada, and Kuniyoshi.

Bonnard like Paul Gauguin and other notable artists was a deep thinker. He commented to Henri Matisse, ‘I agree with you that the painter’s only solid ground is the palette and colors, but as soon as the colors achieve an illusion, they are no longer judged, and the stupidities begin’ — stupidities, such as worrying about the correctness of a reflection?”

If “a reflection” of the artwork of Bonnard is going to be focused on, then the “reflection of Japanese art” can’t be ignored. Of course, just like the Nabi group and his deep thinking towards art, no single event or artistic movement can describe Bonnard. After all, he was a free thinker during his youth, therefore, artistic ideas emanated from many different directions. Likewise, the influence of Paul Gauguin and Stephane Mallarme, who was a Symbolist poet, entered his consciousness.

Bonnard said, …when I and my friends adopted the Impressionists’ color programme in order to build on it we wanted to go beyond naturalistic color impressions – art, however, is not nature – We wanted a more rigorous composition. There was also so much more to extract from color as a means of expression. But developments ran ahead, society was ready to accept Cubism and Surrealism before we had reached what we had viewed as our aim…In a way we found ourselves hanging in mid-air…”

The Santa Barbara Museum of Art responds to the above comment by stating that “Thus, the irony was that Impressionism was both a starting point and a trap for Bonnard. Yet it is acknowledged that Bonnard was not hostile to modern developments in art, rather he simply absorbed what he needed for his own experiments with color and form. As a result, Bonnard is in some ways a deceptive artist because his experiments were far more radical than one may realize at first glance.”

Overall, this article provides a brief glimpse into the importance of Japanese ukiyo-e for Bonnard.

Modern Tokyo News is part of the Modern Tokyo Times group

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