- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 21, 2002

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) was one of the great painters and probably one of the finest colorists of all time. Duncan Phillips, founder of the Phillips Collection and the largest accumulator of the artist's work in the United States, first saw Bonnard's work in 1925 and was instantly hooked. Mr. Phillips collected artists who packed a hefty emotional wallop with color Henri Matisse and Pierre-Auguste Renoir were among them and the French artist fit right in.
There have been many exhibits of this groundbreaking painter at the Phillips 13 solo shows in all but none as all-encompassing as "Pierre Bonnard: Early and Late." The everyday scenes of domestic life, self-portraits, landscapes, nude female bathers, women with their dogs, and views from windows of houses convincingly portray his experimentation with radical pictorial invention.
Opening tomorrow, the 130-work show surveys the range of the artist's work in many mediums: the well-known paintings, the earlier and little-known prints and book projects, large-scale decorative screens, drawings, photographs and sculpture.
Exhibit curator Elizabeth Hutton Turner, who organized the exhibit with the Denver Art Museum, seized the opportunity afforded by the wealth of Bonnards at the Phillips, and generous loans by other lenders, to explore the artist's creative process. She sought to trace the continuity of his lifelong explorations of color and light and daring graphic and compositional experiments in both his early and late work.
Until recently, the artist's oeuvre was divided into his initial Nabis or symbolist efforts and the later impressionist, or colorist, works. The curator set out to demonstrate that Bonnard's art demonstrated several continuous interests and did not support these stylistic divisions. (The Nabis Hebrew for "prophets" looked for alternatives to the Western tradition of painting and found them in the master Japanese artists of the late 19th century Edo period.
The exhibition emphasizes some of the painter's extraordinary experiments with color in such paintings as "Red Checkered Tablecloth" (1910), "Open Window" (1921), "The Palm" (1926) and "Nude in Bathtub" (1941-1946). "Never before had Duncan Phillips seen such a combination of ecstatic and evanescent color in a 20th-century work as when he encountered Bonnard's 'Woman With Dog' in 1925 at the Carnegie International Exhibition in Pittsburgh," says Mrs. Turner, who is also senior curator at the Phillips.
While the exhibit's aim to show the unity of the artist's work is a valid and interesting one, it is the "ecstatic color" that ultimately holds the visitor. Will viewers who are not scholars really be interested in examining a great number of Bonnard's works, many of them not interesting to the general visitor, when they can savor his greatness in masterpieces such as "The Open Window" (1921) and "The Palm" (1926)?
Bonnard's idiosyncratic color and compositional tensions dominate in "The Palm." The painter leads the eye in with glistening masses of deep-green foliage and angled rooftops to the blue Mediterranean Sea beyond. His brush quivers noticeably in delineating the yellows of the shrubbery, textures of the houses and blues of the waves. Angles clash with curves, oranges with purples.
Strangest of all is the mysterious figure at the very front of the canvas. Bonnard has clouded the purplish woman who offers fruit to the viewer. "Her blurred, shadowy form renders an apparition, perhaps a mythical enchantress personifying the seductions of nature," Mrs. Turner perceptively wrote in "The Eye of Duncan Philllips: A Collection in the Making" (Phillips Collection and Yale University Press, 1999). This strange kind of fantasy is what makes the painter's work so unique and fascinating.
He creates a different kind of magic in "The Open Window." The curator recalls, again in "The Eye of Duncan Phillips," the French poet "Mallarme's evocation of the window as 'an aggressive yet fading frame, sole bond to the sky of this world-abandoned building.'"
Bonnard liked having empty spaces in the middle of his paintings as in the void of the window in this picture. The brilliantly painted orange interior contrasts almost violently with the green trees and lavender sky beyond the window. Marthe, the artist's companion, lounges in a chair at the right of the drastically cropped picture.
The exhibit opens with Bonnard borrowing ideas from the Japanese u-kiyoe artists in his Nabis period (the term "ukiyo-e" refers to images of the "floating world" of prints). A woman and horse are silhouetted against a snowy road in "The Cab Horse" (c. 1895). He adopted brilliant Japanese-like reds, greens, yellows and whites in painting an almost silhouette-like marabout bird in "Marabout and Four Frogs," a three-panel screen. It was one of the first paintings in which Bonnard gave stability to a scene by blurring the colors.
The artist first made his name with lithographs. His 1889 prize-winning design for the "France Champagne" poster at age 22 turned him from his previous career as a lawyer to working full time as an artist. He advanced still further with his poster for "La Revue Blanche" in 1894, which he lithographed in four colors.
Bonnard decorated a four-fold screen "Nannies' Promenade, Frieze of Carriages" (1895) with four gigantic lithos. All show the dramatic perspectives and silhouettes borrowed from the Japanese. Mrs. Turner also admires many of his lithographed book covers, text illustrations, music-sheet covers and theater programs and included many in the show.
The artist also experimented with photography. He shot a series of small snapshots of his companion Maria Boursin (she had assumed the name of Marthe de Meligny when they met in 1893).
Bonnard modeled her with a bright, white light from various angles the Japanese "bird's eye view" from above is one while she emerges from the blacks and grays of the foliage behind. He dabbled in sculpture with works like the small, Degas-like bronze "Woman Bathing" (c. 1901-1906). Another, "Daphnis and Chloe," a flat piece of bronze and glass, is both derivative and downright ugly.
Bonnard's forays into these other mediums are experimental and surprising but not particularly innovative. His posters for "France Champagne" and "La Revue Blanche" are close to Henri de Toulouse's paintings and graphics and not as powerful. Edgar Degas was way ahead of Bonnard in photography as the recent show of Degas' photos at the Metropolitan Museum of Art demonstrated. Regular displays of Degas' sculptures at the National Gallery of Art exhibit greater ease with three-dimensional forms.
The exhibition picks up on the second gallery level with sections devoted to self-portraits, women, landscapes and nudes in their baths. The Phillips' high-ceilinged, large center room exhibits many of the bigger "Terrace" paintings and bathing nudes. Visitors will feel they're floating in electric colors chartreuse greens against lavender purples are just a few while they happily struggle to find their footings with the uncertain perspectives.
The relationship between Mr. Phillips and Bonnard was close, and they corresponded often. When the artist came to America to serve on the jury of the Carnegie International in 1926, he visited The Phillips Memorial Gallery, as the Phillips Collection was then known, and they toured the collection together. Phillips Collection Director Jay Gates remembers that when art critic Hilton Kramer came to Washington to see the Bonnards, he found none at the Phillips. Mr. Phillips happened by, saying, "They're all in my dining room at my house on Foxhall Road. Please come see them."
The collector was not Bonnard's only admirer. Henri Cartier-Bresson, who often photographed the painter, wrote in 2000, "There is in the work of Pierre Bonnard a trembling and humility, which have always overwhelmed me. Certain painters became fully accomplished at the end of their life. Bonnard blossomed from the beginning to his last breath. His profound intelligence never suffocated his sensuality."
Even Henri Matisse's praise was effusive: "Bonnard is the greatest among us," he told Mr. Phillips after a visit to the collection in 1930.
Duncan Phillips obviously picked a winner. Visitors will appreciate his adventurousness when they visit this extensive and thoughtful exhibition.

WHAT: "Pierre Bonnard: Early and Late"
WHERE: Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW
10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sat., until 8:30 p.m. Thurs., noon-7 p.m. Sun., closed Mon. Runs tomorrow through Jan. 19
$10 adults, $8 seniors and students, free for Phillips Collection members and children under 18. Advance ticket purchases through TicketMaster (800) 551-SEAT (not in Northern Va., Md., or the District); D.C.: 202/432-SEAT; N. Va.: (703) 573-SEAT; Baltimore: (410) 481-SEAT.

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