Review Essay about Bonnard’s adventures of the optic nerve
Before discussing Pierre Bonnard’s work, it is best to describe how the traditional painter deals with the problem and what the problem is. During Bonnard ‘s time, modernism was confusing and complicated. Many artists were dealing with the issue of the elimination of the subject and how they were going to paint: whether they should follow the impressionists’ style, paint like cubists, or create an abstract painting. This means that they did not get the idea of the elimination of the subject. However, Bonnard was different from those artists. He already understood the concept of elimination of the subject in his paintings. When he painted something, by distancing himself at first, he converted the feeling that he had experience somewhere and recreated it in his memory. By remaking his memory, he could maintain the original qualities of his feelings and memories, which is its light and flavor. More than just the issue of the elimination of the subject, there were also differences in the subjects between Bonnard’s paintings and traditional paintings. Traditional painters almost always bothered with expressing the thing, which was near to their hands and their religious lives. For example, some artists depicted the glory of Jesus, which was an essential part of their lives in that period, or they depicted one aspect of a myth, while Bonnard painted ordinary life, such as taking a bath or having breakfast, which was more challenging to express.
Also, there was another critical issue, which demonstrates the difference between what Bonnard and traditional painters focused on. When traditional painters depicted scenes such as the glory of Jesus, because it was difficult to express the 3-dimensional aspects of 2-dimensional canvases effectively and realistically, they used a technique called classical perspective. They thought that it was a perfect way of expressing the space and atmosphere; however, there were various errors on there. Because people have two eyes, in reality, the focal point is continuously changing. Thus, it means that there is no actual fixed focal point and it did not give actual organic depth. However, in perspective drawing and painting, one fixed focal point exists because the vanishing point exists to express the depth of space. Because traditional painters did not realize it and focused on perspective, even though there were lots of errors, they did not deal with what Bonnard addressed, such as the idea of the elimination of the subject or expressing the visual entirety.
So what was the problem for Bonnard and how did he resolve it? He realized the problem with these traditional painting. He also did not want to express the things that were just close to his hands. He wanted to depict the whole area that he saw by tapping into his memory and time. In other words, he wanted to express the unique quality he sensed in every single moment. This is considered an intelligent and brave decision for a painter because it is difficult to ignore the trend of the period and pursue one’s own opinion. To reject the trend - what traditional painter did - and view the world from this new point of view, which is viewed as depicting ‘visual entirety,’ he included the content of time and memory in his painting by completing the following processes. Before Bonnard realized and found the image of his subject or view of a room, he got the atmosphere and his memory in focus and confirmed various details. By acknowledging these kinds of things before deciding the image or object to paint, these different memories and the atmosphere of the subject cooperated to create specific circumstances and room. Thus, when we synthesize Bonnard’s process and his expressive intention, he did not just paint what he saw in front of him, but he also focused on depicting the ‘visual entirety’ from memory.
Moreover, there is a good example to give credence to this opinion. According to Jean Clair, “Now, painting was for long concerned only with representing what I see in front of me: it seldom attempted to represent the whole field of what I see, that is, not only the narrow channel along which I proceed but also what comes up on the sides, on the periphery of vision, things of whose presence I am aware but which I am unable to describe.” (Clair 6) So, it can be interpreted that he realized the idea of the field of vision and tried to create special moments of how he felt and sensed. These are probably the primary basis to resolve the problem that he is addressing and make his painting distinctive from other painters.
If these are the basis of Bonnard’s solution, what are the specific solutions that he proposed? Bonnard’s solution can be distinguished in two ways: spatially and in terms of color and light. First of all, about space, even though the eye does not keep the world at a distance, traditional painters did not bring everything closer to his eye; they just maintained the distance to space. This might be a problem because there is no actual fixed focal point as the author mentioned before. So, to resolve this problem and express the completeness of the field of vision, Bonnard used two instruments called ‘The Mirror’ and ‘The French window.’ Because the world exists without an actual focal point, the mirror is the best object for making dispersal the perspective continuity and combines two different spaces smoothly on a canvas, which is a two-dimensional thing. It also conveys some information about hierarchies and what exists behind the viewers. Simultaneously, it makes it possible for Bonnard to see any objects or figures from different angles. Thus, by using a mirror, Bonnard resolved the classical perspective’s problem, which had a perfect point of view and provided information about the continuity of space. Therefore, one could argue that the mirror was used to construct the basic frame for his painting.
The other instrument is called the French window. According to Jean Clair, “While the mirror brings the depth of the world up to the surface of its reflection, the French window condenses it in the thickness of its glass pane.” (Clair 16) This means that by using the French window, because he could depict the actual depth of the world, Bonnard could express his memory of what he saw more accurately such as the atmosphere of the scene. Also, by showing the two worlds in one single point of view, which are the mirror and the French window that also can be considered as interior and exterior, Bonnard could embody his sense of time and memory of the scene on a single surface. On a single surface, because Bonnard mixed two spaces smoothly, he could depict space more clearly as he felt in the moment.
Secondly, Bonnard’s other solution existed in the color area. The pictorial problem appeared in a color area. The vast expansion of the visual field that Bonnard made by using ‘Mirror’ and ‘French window’ could not depict the formal intensity of color because when he expressed the visual entirety, the pictorial field had no actual point of clear emphasis. Because of this issue, Bonnard had to use Chroma colors in all of the areas regardless of shade or distance. To solve this problem, Bonnard made two rules for using color. First, when he painted the proximate part to his eyes or the most brilliant things, he utilized orange for the primary color. Secondly, when he painted the things, which were furthermost from his eyes or less brilliant things, he used blue as the predominant color. Through the flaw s of these colors and the harmony of the orange and blue, he could express the different kinds of the atmosphere of memory sentimentally. Also, it made it possible to create various kinds of mixtures, such as violet in the red area and green in the yellow area.
Through all of these solutions, Bonnard overcame the problems that he addressed and achieved beautiful paintings that had the following accomplishments. By giving its outer sections the same emphasis as its central area, he combined the field of vision and also created the field of the canvas covered naturally by human vision. Simultaneously, he combined the field of the intensity of color values to give a gleaming effect to his painting. When he solved each section of the problem, such as space or color, his painting developed and he created his style; for example, the using of instruments called ‘The Mirror’ and ‘The French window’ or the spectrum of orange to blue. Bonnard’s painting played a role as the connecting link between classical paintings and modern paintings because Bonnard resolves the problem that classical painter addressed and gave brief direction to the modern painter.
“About a Pierre Bonnard (1867~1947)”, Yonghan Joe, Web. January 25, 2013.
Jean Clair, “The adventures of the optic nerve (From Bonnard, the Late Paintings).”