July 2023

Arts & Letters

Emotional virtue: ‘Pierre Bonnard: Designed by India Mahdavi’ and ‘Rembrandt: True to Life’

By Miriam Cosic

Detail of Pierre Bonnard, Coffee, 1915, oil on canvas, 73 x 106.5 cm, Tate, London. Presented by Sir Michael Sadler through the NACF 1941, photograph © Tate

Concurrent exhibitions at the NGV survey the intense realism of Rembrandt and the emotional power of colour harnessed by Pierre Bonnard

One could hardly find a more dissimilar pairing of moments in art history than 17th century Netherlands and 20th century France, a thorough contrast in mores, morals and marketplace. And political systems. Yet a glorious arc between them is on show at the National Gallery of Victoria, which is hosting two international exhibitions concurrently: one of Rembrandt’s drawings from the Dutch Golden Age and another of Pierre Bonnard’s paintings from French post-impressionist era.

The first is an exercise in restraint. Rembrandt’s drawings are meticulous in their realism, broken up here by the occasional sombre painting, all displayed under protectively low lighting. Most of the works are minuscule and require close viewing, which is immensely rewarding: the figures are profoundly expressive, psychologically and physically. The NGV has a big collection of Rembrandt’s etchings. More than 100 are on show here and they have been joined by pertinent paintings and works on paper borrowed from other galleries around the world.

“Rembrandt has been characterised as the stereotypical stubborn artist – a misunderstood genius, a heretic of art – and his life story has become the subject of conjecture and exaggeration,” writes Petra Kayser, NGV’s curator of prints and drawings, in a neat summation beginning her essay in the exhibition catalogue. Indeed, between the artist’s choice of specialisation in subject matter and his refusal to move with the times in what was a highly commercial art market, he did rather sketch out his own downfall.

“His rapid rise to fame in the early 1630s, his nonconformist lifestyle and the dramatic change of fortune leading to bankruptcy in the 1650s have given rise to romanticised ideas about the artist’s tumultuous life,” Kayser continues. “Rembrandt’s art, however, does not invite clichés. It is characterised by complexity, subtlety and eloquence.”

The second exhibition is a riot of colour, more than 100 of Bonnard’s paintings, works on paper and photographs, as well as paintings by his contemporaries and early film by the Lumière brothers. The colour in the show also comes from a spirited backdrop of patterns on the walls, copied from the wallpapers in Bonnard’s own flamboyant interiors. Such busyness rarely works and visitors often prefer a more contemplative environment for their experience, but this is a glorious outing, enhanced by bright lighting and peekaboo windows in the walls between rooms. So much so that the title of the show includes the name of the designer of the hang: Pierre Bonnard: Designed by India Mahdavi. Mahdavi is a charismatic Iranian-French architect and designer, described in Architectural Digest as among the world’s most influential. She visited Melbourne for the opening with the lead curator, Isabelle Cahn, emeritus senior curator of paintings at the Musée d’Orsay. With Ted Gott, senior curator of international art at the NGV, they made a lively panel on the topic of Bonnard at the media preview.

The show was originally planned for this time three years ago, before the pandemic derailed it. “Monsieur Bonnard and I share the same passion: colour,” Mahdavi said at the time. “I love his subjective perception of colour – the way he transforms the intimacy of everyday life into something sublime – how he invites us into his home, to look through a bathroom door, or to look out through the window onto the sunset in Le Cannet.”

Cahn observed: “Bonnard’s universal vision of space and time, his luminous and nuanced palette, his vibrant touch, his complex compositions revealing invisible worlds, make the artist a major figure in French painting at the end of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. The power of his talent is expressed through intimate subjects which are accessible to all, a tribute to his timeless genius.”

Matisse called Bonnard “a great painter, for today and definitely also for the future”. 

Where to start in comparing the two eras of the concurrent exhibitions? The Dutch 17th century was an extraordinary time. In the Low Countries’ north, the United Provinces was the most highly urbanised country in Europe. A confederation of sovereign states commonly known as the Dutch Republic, it was mostly ruled by its merchant class who, unlike kings and princes elsewhere, took their fellow citizens into account when running the place.

Dutch historian Joop de Jong told me, not impartially, at the time of Rembrandt & the Dutch Golden Age: Masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2017, that the Dutch Republic flourished under a mix of civic virtues: the classical (moderation, harmony, truthfulness, sincerity, perseverance, prudence, and vigilance) and the traditional northern European (incorruptibility and wisdom of judges, equality of all persons under the law, and the importance of statute law).

Millions died during the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries across Europe, between the fighting and resulting diseases and famines. The United Provinces stood out in the region for its tolerance, unlike the Spanish Netherlands further south, and thousands of Protestants fled there. Despite the north’s strict Calvinism – think of all those portraits of men and women in dour black garments with white ruffs – it accepted both Catholics and Jews, as long as they were discreet about their worship. Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition were also welcomed, and indigenous Catholics felt comfortable enough to stay put despite the Protestant milieu.

And the United Provinces profited from its generosity to refugees. Many of them were entrepreneurs, especially from nearby Flanders, who brought their business interests with them. They prospered, Holland prospered, and a dynamic art market soon arose quite akin to ours today. Without royalty or a church to commission artists – the Calvinist church was as austere about decoration as the form of dress at the time – art was largely secular and artists were soon painting on spec.

Rembrandt initially made a fortune from his talent. He was born Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn in Leiden in 1606, the son of a miller. One of seven children who survived into adulthood, he was sent to a Latin school. By 15, however, he knew what he wanted to do and apprenticed himself to a painter, first in Leiden, then in Amsterdam. He set up his own studio with a friend when he returned to Leiden four years later. A small painting, Tobit and Anna with the Kid, made in 1626, was a precocious study in emotion – remorse, in this case – and it attracted attention. Constantijn Huygens, poet, composer and secretary to two princes of Orange, expressed surprise that “a youth, a Dutchman, a beardless miller, could put so much into one human figure and depict it all. All honour to thee, my Rembrandt!”

Years later, in 1639, Rembrandt wrote to Huygens, then secretary to Prince Frederik Hendrik, that his aim was to convey the “most natural motion and emotion”. He was at the height of his success then and bought a grand house in Amsterdam, setting it up as a studio and a sales room, an art dealership for other painters, a place for his own art collection and vast Wunderkammer, and some rooms in the attic for students. It didn’t last. Rembrandt narrowed his interest to intellectually absorbing history paintings and refused to shift away from his sombre toning to follow the fashion for brighter colours. In addition, the market for art, and for luxury goods in general, was failing, thanks to the Anglo-Dutch Wars of the early 1650s. In 1656, the great artist declared bankruptcy and his house was sold soon after.

That painting of Tobit and Anna, held by the Rijksmuseum, is in the Melbourne exhibition. And so is another, more famous one: the self-portrait Rembrandt painted in 1659, now held by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The latter is a more intimate psychological portrait, showing a cautious and worried man.

Rembrandt made around 80 self-portraits throughout his life, most of them among his prints. Ten of these prints are sprinkled through the exhibition, tracing his ageing process from grinning youth to more contemplative elder. Included are biblical themes – Christ preaching and Christ crucified among them – variations on Saint Jerome in an Italian landscape with a lion included, as you do, and portraits, landscapes and scenes of everyday life. His prints of nudes are not idealised versions of femininity but clearly observations of real life. Intense realism was a quality of the Dutch Golden Age, which eschewed the Baroque’s religion and splendour for reasons already discussed, but Rembrandt took it to its limits. It was the poet Andries Pels who described him soon after his death as “the first heretic of art”.

Rembrandt and Bonnard cannot be seen on the same day. The differently sized apertures required of the brain need time to shift between. And yet, some parallels stretch like tendrils between them. Like Rembrandt, Bonnard was obsessed with emotion. His vehicle, however, was not more perfectly realised human expression but colour. Yet his depictions of people are also less about romanticisation than practical examination. His nudes, for example, are not so much about the sexual glamour of femininity, as the grand odalisques of history are, than about women, who seem to happen to be unclothed, going about their daily lives.

Isabelle Cahn wrote in the beautiful Bonnard catalogue:

Whether sisters, cousins, lovers or geishas, the women in Bonnard’s works are not intended for pure contemplation. Rather, they are a major component in his creative process. He places them in intimate surroundings, giving the viewer the impression that he or she has broken into someone’s private space … He is not interested in rendering flawless likenesses. Instead he is focused on creating links between animate and inanimate objects in a reality that is illusory.

Some of Bonnard’s garden photographs are of himself, as well as his wife, Marthe, moving around naked. One painting, Man and Woman (1900) – clearly of the couple – is an apparently impromptu bedroom scene of the woman sitting on the bed and the man standing, again naked.

Bonnard was born in the Parisian suburbs in 1867, to a middle-class family that had nothing to do with art. His father was a senior executive in the French ministry of war. Yet the young Bonnard loved drawing, which both honed his sense of observation and allowed him to express his thoughts and feelings. He studied law at university, but a year before graduating (which he did, and even started practising), he enrolled in drawing classes at the Académie Julian, then the École des Beaux-Arts, where he formed the friendships – Édouard Vuillard, Maurice Denis and Félix Vallotton among them – that became his artistic circle. They were deeply influenced by the radicalism of Paul Gauguin and his ilk, as well as by Japanese art by those such as Hokusai then wowing Paris, and determined to take it further. Some of Bonnard’s earliest commercial work was the new style of coloured theatre posters, for which Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec became more famous.

Their group took on the name “Les Nabis” in the last decade of the 19th century, employing a Hebrew word for “prophet”. It was coined for them by the poet Henri Cazalis who, as the Tate puts it, compared “the way the group of painters aimed to revitalise painting (as prophets of modern art) and the way the ancient prophets had rejuvenated Israel”. One can see how their work was trying to do that, taking on, as it did, pared-down drawing, striking contours and flat patches of colour.

Again, Bonnard had to take it further. “Bonnard realised early that he had a marginal position on the contemporary artistic stage,” Cahn writes. “He belonged to no trend. His explorations were not only formal but mostly connected to the representation of space and time in painting.”

He flipped the usual understanding of creative visual endeavour. “Drawing is sensation, colour is reasoning,” as he often said. Of his obsession with colour, he told a journalist later in his life: “You see, when my friends and I wanted to continue the work of the Impressionists and try to develop it, we tried to go further than they had regarding their naturalistic impressions of colour … Colour was a means of expression from which we wished to extract much more. But the situation evolved faster than we could. Society welcomed cubism and surrealism before we had even reached what we deemed to be our goal … We found ourselves suspended in space, in a manner of speaking.”

Not all of his contemporaries admired him the way Matisse did. “Don’t talk to me about Bonnard,” Picasso once said. “That’s not painting, what he does. He never goes beyond his own sensitivity. He doesn’t know how to choose … The result is a potpourri of indecision.”

Unlike Rembrandt, perhaps because of his upbringing and education and despite his radicalism, Bonnard made a successful career out of his vocation and led a comfortable life as he aged. The exhibition of his work at the NGV is a dazzling survey of it all. And I speak as someone who has been less than enamoured of Bonnard’s slightly murky tones and squelchy brushstrokes.

Mahdavi, whose home and studio is just 500 metres from the Musée d’Orsay, brings a painterly eye to her exhibition design. Apart from the wallpaper backdrops, plain-coloured walls and the installations of equally bright modernist furniture, her architectural touches are exciting. As well as those windows between rooms, telescoping colours upon colours, there are stand-alone walls, for example. Thus, the striking Twilight, or The croquet game (1892), with its juxtaposition of young women playing the game to the left of the darkening green painting and a circle of white nymphs dancing to the right, is hung on a huge hexagon painted in a complementary dark maroon.

“I think people always are scared of colours. Frightened,” Mahdavi told The Australian at the media preview. “In museums and galleries, there seems to be some idea that great works of art should be displayed against a neutral background. They should be stuck on a beige wall. Why?” She once said, apropos of her work in general, that she loves “when colours swear at each other”. Bonnard was an ideal subject for her. She made another point elsewhere on the day that she came later to the idea of obstruction in Bonnard’s work, after the obvious in colour and saturation. He wasn’t painting from direct observation or from an easel: “His reality is through his mind, through his memory.” So, his own mind was always the prism through which he saw, grouping moments and channelling the remembered sensation of emotion through colour.

Bonnard moved to the south of France for his safety at the outbreak of World War Two, to the French Riviera. The colour is luminously rich on the Mediterranean, unlike the grey that Paris can often express. Mahdavi understands Bonnard’s iterations of illumination. “I know the light in his paintings,” she has said. “I understand it. It’s really beautiful. Those are the colours of the south of France, where I spent six years of my life.” He died at a cottage on La Route de Serra Capeou, near Le Cannet, in 1947, having painted his last work, an expression of the promise of spring, Almond tree in bloom, just the week before.

Miriam Cosic

Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist and author.

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