Book- Bonnard by Timothy Hyman

As I consider the continued importance of drawing through looking at the work of Pierre Bonnard I was drawn to the title of Chapter 4- ‘A language for the heightened moment’. Somehow I knew this chapter would be about drawing. It was interesting to discover that through frustration in his work and his difficulty in translating the excitement of his initial inspiration into a painting he had set himself the task of going back to the beginning- ‘So I shall have to study drawing……….. I shall draw all the time’. Titian was clearly an inspiration to him, he felt that Titian’s strength was in keeping the ‘seduction’ strong and being able to translate this into his work. Bonnard felt weak in comparison and considered himself seduced by the object of the painting. He hoped to address this through his drawing. It allowed him to respond to fugitive and momentary sensations; he wanted to capture the thing that had most impressed him. In consequence many of his drawings were made very quickly, often on any material that was to hand. He considered drawing to be the ‘sensation’ and colour to be the reasoning that came later.

Through his drawing practice he developed a variety of marks- dots, ticks, circular scribblings, zigzags, strips and patches that became his own code for colour, atmosphere, and effects of light. He became a master of registering his own position in space and was able to emphasis the mobility of the human eye and its capacity to synthesize within a single image a sequence of different perceptions.

Bonnard’s drawing procedure is all about the speed of the intuitive mark, a kind of leap in the dark; and these marks have some of the qualities of signs. Writing of Bonnard’s friend and contemporary, Henri Matisse, Pierre Schneider has defined the sign as ‘a form that has been made buoyant through simplification…… condensed by the swiftness of the draughtsman’s hand.’ (p102)

Although many of his drawings might be considered insignificant or sketchy, often because they have been made so quickly, the author suggests that they are actually the ‘raw material of his greatest art’. The book has some good examples of comparing the drawings made with the resultant painting- p99 The Factory and p189PortTrouville. The Metmuseum  has a good range of drawings by Bonnard in which you can get a sense of the speed with which they were made.

It was interesting to read of his working methods. He would use ready primed canvas cut from a roll and work on a large un-stretched piece pinned to the wall. He would generally start with a charcoal sketch, moving on to using oil, working with a brush in one hand and a rag in the other. The choice of large un-stretched canvas would allow room for alterations along the way. His late works are described as fresh, with apparent spontaneity- perhaps all that drawing did pay off. The author describes him as ‘a painter of the most poignant psychological insight, whose perceptual and special invention matched the complexity of his emotional resonance’. (p11)

The other chapter that particularly caught my attention was chapter 1- Flatness and the floating world. The title had me making connections to the Somerset levels- the landscape from which I intend to make my work. The flatness in the title alludes to the aesthetic of flatness in the work of the Nabis, a group inspired by Paul Gauguin The floating world refers to Japanese woodblock prints that captured Bonnard’s attention, which he felt were tremendously alive and vibrant. Ukiyo-e (the floating world) is about ephemeral and fugitive experience, centered on the pleasure quarter of the city of Edo. Bonnard was interested in the paradox between the flighty imagery and the rigidity of medium (woodblock). Having made a connection with the Somerset levels it has made me think that there are ways I could explore this further, perhaps through the aesthetic of flatness, relating to the flatness of the land.

Ref. Hyman, Timothy (1998) Bonnard. London: Thames and Hudson.

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