BONNARD'S FIGURATIVE SPACE IN CONTEXT

Bonnard’s  “The Studio with Mimosa” 1939 at The Pompidou, Paris is an intriguing painting - a slow meditation on colour and space. I have become increasingly fascinated with Bonnard's work of late (partly due to a course on colour in painting I am running at the RA with guest lecturer Nicholas Watkins). I was previously unsure about his colour which at times looks laboured or even sour in patches; in so many paintings though, he quite wilfully moves your eyes about, as things quietly emerge into focus: heads; fruit; cups; chairs, all seem to materialise covertly without you noticing it. Bonnard seems to create "peripheries" which exist ironically, right in front of you, through a soft dissolving of closely toned colour and a lacy architecture of zones. His brushwork builds in small part to part accumulations of form. He never worked from direct transcription (possibly a shock to the casual observer)  - tacking canvas on a wall in strips in his studio  and working from small pencil studies made around the house or garden and a few notations of light situations. These drawings are quite delightful little studies and some his pencil drawings have a rewarding open-ness to them.

I have begun to wonder if the movement of an eye ‘through’ pictorial space or spaces is in itself an act out of figuration. Having just returned from the Far East and seeing a very different take on painting and indeed Chinese writing with its frontal forces, I can see that the roots of abstract art might even be stronger in this part of the world that the west (?) - obviously the Japanese prints were key influences on European Modern Art and onwards, but the way space is organised in Chinese Art also is revealing. The landscapes emerging through washes punctuated with clusters of sharper incident on vertical strips of paper or linen have a clichéd quality at times but get beyond this and there is a remarkably sophisticated artistic conditioning at play. Whilst in Singapore, I found myself drawn to the cheapest tackiest, signs and was transfixed by the garish colouring and punchy lettering - coming straight at you. As lettering is symbolic of character, it is at once frontally engaging and not prone to "time-reading" as Roman script is, running from left to right and unfolding accordingly. Time is something we prize yet is it really a virtue in a painting - is the unfolding of space a goal? or is it actually a contradiction of the true nature of a painting’s potential as a instantaneous moment in light? Can abstract art best realise this potential ? Can have no such figurative pictorial space to read or  to move through but still compel the movement of the eye as it explores what is there?

 Bonnard: "Studio with Mimosa:  1939: oil on canvas 127.5 cm square - MAM Paris 

Bonnard: "Studio with Mimosa:  1939: oil on canvas 127.5 cm square - MAM Paris