Bonnard: Painting Arcadia, a special exhibit at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor Museum is a trove of wonderful paintings. While I have seen some of this art exhibited or reproduced before, many images were new to me. Or perhaps I was just seeing them through fresh eyes. What I noticed most were the way so many of Bonnard’s paintings of people also include animals. The animals are tightly knitted into the compositions. And often they are actually more expressive than the people in the paintings.
I’ve always related to Bonnard’s somewhat introverted vision of the world. Even when he is painting crowded scenes in the cafes and boulevards of Paris, there is an outsider quality to his observation of humanity. But in the scenes that include animals, people holding dogs and cats, there is a real emotional connection between species that shines through in the canvases.
The show opens with a group of tall panels, including a painting of a woman with a dog and one of a woman with a cat. Animals also appear as pure decoration in some of Bonnard’s paintings. There are the flattened silhouettes of two dogs in “Poodles Playing” and the border of climbing monkeys and birds in the decorative dining room panels that Bonnard painted for Misia Edwards in 1906-1910.
My favorite animal of show was the solo “White Cat” whose disproportionately long legs seem to express the essence of a luxurious cat stretch. The same white cat appears again in “The Work Table” where it is sitting next to a sleeping dog in the background. The white cat also stars in “Woman with Cat” where it is aggressively eyeing a fish on the woman’s dinner plate.
Bonnard the Artist:
Bonnard lived from 1867 to 1947. He is considered a Post-Impressionist, the generation of painters who worked after Impressionist such as Monet. Bonnard worked in applied arts such as decorative panels, stained glass, book illustration, and prints. He was also influenced by Japonism, a style inspired by Japanese prints. He painted many landscapes, genre scenes and decorative works. I’ve always loved Bonnard’s use of color and the casual but considered quality of his compositions and drawing. Bonnard’s drawing is the opposite of photographic but he captures the essence of the scenes he paints through a suggestion of color and shape. Everything shimmers with contrasting colors, yet fits neatly together like jigsaw puzzle pieces.
Bonnard was also an early user of photography and owned a Kodak camera. The show includes a selection of small black and white snapshots that he took, mostly family scenes, but also some figure models. That made me realize how much richer the world appears in Bonnard’s large, color-saturated canvases than in the precise but visually limited realm of photography of his day.
Bonnard’s paintings with animals are refreshingly full of life and warmth. There is a hint of bigger emotions in the way he paints animals, while his human subjects seem remote and introspective in comparison. Bonnard’s animals are proportional to people though, unlike the over-sized cats and dogs of my Big Pets Series. This exhibit is at the Legion of Honor until May 16th, 2016. It’s definitely worth visiting. I’m so glad I took the time to go.