The Beyeler Foundation : Bonnard’s Imaginary House

Basel, Beyeler Foundation, from 29 January to 13 May 2012.

There’s no place like home, and Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) has today, at least for a few months, settled in comfortably at the Beyeler Foundation, in Riehen near Basel.
With a selection of 65 works, the curator of the exhibition, Ulf Küster, of the Beyeler Foundation, reconstitutes "Bonnard’s imaginary house", with all of its neighborhoods, gardens and interiors, from the continuous presence of Paris, to Vernon and Cannet. A thematic, and non-chronological, concept , particularly appropriate for this homebody who found constant inspiration in everyday domestic life.

1. Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947)
The Pears (Luncheon at Grand-Lemps), 1899
Oil on Canvas - 53.5 x 61 cm
Budapest, Szépmüvészeti Mùzeum
Photo : Szépmüvészeti Mùzeum

2. Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947)
The Croquet Game, 1892
Oil on Canvas - 130 x 162.5 cm
Paris, Musée d’Orsay
Photo : Musée d’Orsay/RMN/Hervé Lewandowski

Pierre Bonnard can be said to fit in particularly well at the Beyeler Foundation since its founder, Ernst Beyeler, always admired and collected his work and had already presented him in a 1966 retrospective at his Basel gallery. The Foundation is thus consistent in its exhibition policy of highlighting artists in its collection [1] and offers, thanks to loans from international institutions and private collections, notably the Hahnloser collection [2] (see article in French) from the Villa Flora at Winterthur, considered the "Swiss Bonnard museum", a retrospective of very high quality.

Bonnard spent his whole life moving back and forth from Paris, which he always loved, and the countryside, first Normandy then the French Riviera. His houses, never permanent residences, always complementing each other, were to provide both his subjects and his studios.
The first of these was "Le Grand-Lemps", the family vacation home, between Lyon and Grenoble, where he painted his first small Italianate landscapes, his fond interior scenes, The Pears (Luncheon at Grand-Lemps) (ill. 1), but already large formats as well, such as The Croquet Game (ill. 2).
Then back to Paris, the first studio at 28 rue Pigalle and his successive studio-homes, from Place Clichy to Montmartre, which Bonnard would never leave and occupy in a permanent way even if only a few months a year (except for the period during the war).

3. Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947)
The Wild Garden (The Large Terrace), 1918
Oil on Canvas - 159.5 x 249.6 cm
Washington, The Phillips Collection
Photo : The Phillips Collection

4. Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947)
Décor at Vernon (The Terrace at Vernon), c.1920/1939
Oil on Canvas - 148 x 194.9 cm
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo : The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Moving away from the capital again, the artist settled in his first country home at Vernonnet, close to Giverny, nicknamed "Ma Roulotte (My Caravan)". Pierre Bonnard and his companion, Marthe de Méligny, born Maria Boursin (1869-1942), would own it from 1912 to 1939. Overlooking the Seine river and facing southwest, its view and light fascinated the painter. His canvases take on vibrant colors, the terrace of The Wild Garden (The Large Terrace) (ill. 3) comes alive with the flaming, sated shades of a late afternoon while Décor at Vernon (The Terrace at Vernon) (ill. 4) adopts softer, but still luminous, hues. In this second, late, work for which there are already studies in the sketchbook corresponding to the early 1920’s, but completed only in 1939, the lighter tones of yellow and violet reveal an important, and influential, element in Bonnard’s career : the discovery of southern France and its very different light.
The year 1939 indeed marked a turning point in the painter’s life when he abandoned his house in Normandy, choosing to spend time almost exclusively in the South, at "Le Bosquet (the Grove)" in Cannet, acquired over ten years earlier in 1926. He would live there for twenty years until his death in 1947, with Marthe, then alone after she passed away in 1942. Here, he painted other terraces, other gardens as well as each of the rooms in the villa, and Marthe, especially Marthe, everywhere and from every possible angle.

5. Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947)
Through the Panes, 1910
Oil on Canvas - 69.5 x 29.5 cm
Private Collection
Photo : D.R.

6. Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947)
Place Clichy, 1906-07
Oil on Canvas - 102.1 x 116.6 cm
Private Collection
Photo : D.R.

It was almost a nomadic life, moving back and forth continuously, making the domestic routine far from dull, much in contrast with the choice of very classical and traditional themes. This was the trap to be avoided : considering the artist’s favorite subjects as the sign of a pleasant and narrow-minded petit-bourgeois art. "La maison imaginaire de Bonnard" at the Beyeler Foundation follows the trend of exhibitions which since the 1980’s with, notably the one at the Centre Pompidou in 1984 [3], and more recently in 2006 the very beautiful retrospective Bonnard. Un arrêt du temps at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris [4], help to ward off these false and condescending considerations of a "happiness à la Bonnard". Pierre Bonnard is anything but a conventional and lazy painter diligently depicting his sweet existence as a privileged person shifting places from Paris to the provinces at will.

7. Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947)
Summer, 1917
Oil on Canvas - 260 x 340 cm
Saint-Paul, Fondation Marguerite et Aimé Maeght
Photo : Fondation Maeght/Claude Germain

8. Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947)
Open Window toward the Seine (Vernon), 1911-12
Oil on Canvas - 78 x 105.5 cm
Nice, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Ville de Nice

9. Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947)
Dining Room on the Garden, 1934-35
Oil on Canvas - 126.8 x 135.3 cm
New York, Salomon R. Guggenheim Museum
Photo : Guggenheim Museum

The exhibition’s thematic approach reconstitutes a survey of the painter’s career without attempting to establish a chronological line. The artist’s evolution and creative invention having forged themselves continuously and developed progressively, in no specific order, around the same themes, the show studies his artistic evolution through these favorite subjects.
It begins with "The Street" and, more specifically, the animated scenes of Parisian boulevards which inspired Bonnard from high up in his studio, Through the Panes (ill. 5) and close up among the shifting crowds, Place Clichy (ill. 6).
Then, in the second room, "Bonnard’s imaginary house" welcomes us, first as seen from a public angle, in the reception rooms and open spaces, then the dining room, terraces and gardens. Here we discover two main motifs in the painter’s work, interiors and nature.
The interior views (Work Table, 1926-37, Washington, National Gallery of Art) often animated by human figures (The White Tablecloth, 1925, Van der Heydt, Museum Wuppertal) and the still-lifes (The Dessert, 1940, Basel, Beyeler Foundation) are followed by three rooms transformed into gardens. Opening with large bay windows onto the outdoors, they offer visitors a perfectly staged perspective for Bonnard’s landscapes. The boundaries fade, the canvases, in large format, become an extension of the surrounding nature, forming a painting within a painting where the landscapes, gardens and houses blend. The first one, "A Wild Garden", allows us to admire the canvas of the same name from 1918 (ill. 3) then "The Sunny Garden" arranged around Summer (ill. 7) and finally, "The Gardens and Landscapes" highlights notably The Décor at Vernon (ill. 4).
A bit further, a fourth room presents Bonnard’s artistry in representing exteriors seen from inside his homes. A perfect motif of this association, windows are present in each of the canvases in this section, from Open Window toward the Seine (Vernon) (ill. 8) to the Dining Room on the Garden (ill. 9).

10. Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947)
The Bath, 1925
Oil on Canvas - 86 x 120.6 cm
Londres, Tate
Photo : Tate, London

11. Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947)
Reflection (The Tub), 1909
Oil on Canvas - 73 x 84.5 cm
Winterthur, Villa Flora
Photo : Villa Flora, Winterthur

Midway through the show, private scenes take over from public views, and our visit becomes something of a voyeuristic experience. Two rooms offer a close-up of the painter’s intimacy with his companion and exclusive model, Marthe.
The Bathroom, first, or dressing room, at the heart of the exhibition, which assembles ten canvases illustrating Marthe’s toilette. A new, and essential, motif of Bonnard’s work appeared around 1900, the female nude and, through it, the famous theme of the bathtub. The Beyeler Foundation stages it with three large "Baths" including the captivating The Bath from the Tate (ill. 10).
Finally, we enter the bedroom, first discovering the room entitled "The Mirror". A new pretext for presenting female nudes, the mirror blurs space and multiplies the viewpoints inside the canvas, providing a detailed study, even more complete than that offered in the bathroom, of Marthe. Reflection (The Tub), painted in 1909 (ill. 11) is one of the first nudes using this composition method.

12. Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947)
Coffee, 1915
Oil on Canvas - 73 x 106.4 cm
Londres, Tate
Photo : Tate, London

While Bonnard’s sources of inspiration in daily life are not really revolutionary, his treatment of them is extremely innovative. Far from delivering a minute reflection of a comfortable lifestyle in the early 20th century, his canvases are a laboratory of pictorial experiments.
Bonnard is not a motif painter who applies himself to faithfully reproducing reality, he reconstructs, reinvents that reality in his studio. He wrote : "All my subjects are at hand. I go to look at them. I take notes. And then I come back home. And before painting, I think, I dream".
As Evelyn Benesch explains in an essay [5], Pierre Bonnard was a painter who always explored and applied "blurring techniques" in his canvases.
It starts with the representation of space, its depth, far from traditional. The perspective is never centered on a unique vanishing point, the artist’s compositions juxtapose several viewpoints and several different scales at the same time. Traces of Japanese engravings by Ukiyo-e which influenced him at the beginning of his career with the Nabis can be seen throughout his entire production, up to the end. We can thus understand the artist’s attraction to the motifs of the window and the mirror, perfect artefacts for "blurring spatial situations", in Evelyn Benesch’s words. We could take each of the works in the exhibition as an example : the close view from above in Reflection (The Tub) (ill. 11) where the mirror reflects at the same time the back of the room, the sides and the middle, just like the red-checkered tablecloth which takes up two-thirds of the canvas in Coffee and tilts the table ( ill . 12), or the seemingly infinite extension of the landscape in The Sunny Terrace ((1939-46, Private collection). In this large and drawn-out format, the central area and the lateral zones animated by blurred figures seem to be perfectly autonomous. The lack of articulation between the different spaces is all the more pronounced by the treatment of the very bright colors, placed in juxtaposition as in a mosaic.
We have here Bonnard’s second field of experimentation, color. Everywhere the eye turns, the sated and contrasting colors dissolve the planes and figures. Bonnard finds "in the tones [...] a revelation of sensations" [6]. We would refer here to Jean Clair’s famous essay, "Les aventures du nerf optique", which appeared in the exhibition catalog for Pierre Bonnard at the Centre Pompidou in 1984 [7], an essential text on the subject of blurred space and the surprising combinations of colors used by the painter. The author explains that the use of these two unusual procedures serves a common purpose, the painter’s desire to "show what we see when suddenly entering a room all at once" [8]. What Bonnard wishes to convey then is the sensory expression provoked by a space and not the detailed description of the elements composing it.

A complex art which demands therefore, as concerns both the subject and its treatment, careful observation, even, as Bonnard wrote in his notes, "a suspension of time" [9]. The Beyeler Foundation has wisely chosen to show a restricted number of works presented in a very understated setting. It regales us with a clear and luminous demonstration, emulating the Renzo Piano building which welcomes it.

Our only reservation would go to the catalogue, in English or German, which accompanies the exhibition and is rather confusing. The very interesting essays alternate with the list of works, following the order of the different sections in the visit, and with the reproductions, in very true colors, but there are no detailed entries. As for the comments on the works, not systematically present, they appear scattered throughout the essays and can be hard to find as they are not even mentioned alongside the list of works (which have no numbers) appearing at the end of the publication. Readers are also left without a selective bibliography and there is no listing of previous exhibitions. In short, a very successful exhibition which does not have the catalogue it deserves.

Curator : Ulf Küster

Collective work, Pierre Bonnard, Fondation Beyeler, 2012, 176 p., 57€. English ISBN 9783775732659 / German ISBN 9783775732642.

Visitor information : Fondation Beyeler, Baselstrasse 101, CH-4125 Riehen/Bâle. Tel : +41 (0)61 645 97 00. Open every day from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Admission : CHF 25, (reduced : CHF 20).

Fondation Beyeler website

Julie Demarle, lundi 27 février 2012


[1] The Foundation owns The Dessert, dated 1940, acquired in 2006. Moreover, Ernst Beyeler sold several remarkable Bonnard canvases when he had his gallery, some of which are exhibited here in the show. These are Nude in a Bathtub (Stepping out of the Bath), (1931, Paris, Centre Pompidou) and The Big Bathtub (Nude), (1937-39, private collection).

[2] Hedy and Arthur Hahnloser-Bühler were personal friends of Pierre Bonnard.

[3] A traveling exhibition which took place at the Centre Pompidou in Paris from 23 February to 21 May 1984, then at the Phillips Collection in Washington from 9 June to 20 August 1984, finally at the Dallas Museum of Art from 16 September to 20 November 1984.

[4] From 2 February to 7 May 2006.

[5] "L’Insaisissable. Notes sur Pierre Bonnard", exhibition catalogue pp. 8-15.

[6] Antoine Terrasse quotes Pierre Bonnard’s own words of 27 April 1937, in "Les notes de Bonnard", exhibition catalog, Centre Georges Pompidou, 1984, p. 195.

[7] Jean Clair, "Les aventures du nerf optique", exhibition catalogue, Paris, Centre Georges Pompidou, 1984, pp. 16-47.

[8] Ibid., p. 19.

[9] "L’oeuvre d’art un arrêt du temps (the work of art, a suspension of time), a quote from Bonnard dated 16 November 1936, in Antoine Terrasse, "Les notes de Bonnard", exhibition catalog, Centre Georges Pompidou, 1984, p. 195.

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