French Twist

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, French culture was really something -- and there are all those pictures to prove it. There are the Manets, the Monets, the Van Goghs, the Gauguins, the Toulouse-Lautrecs, the Cézannes, the Matisses and the Picassos, as well as others by the all-time greats from art history's Hall of Fame.

Among these works from the golden age of la belle France are those by Pierre Bonnard, the star of Bonnard, the big spring extravaganza at the Denver Art Museum that opened this past weekend. The dazzling show, guaranteed to attract the crowds, marks the third time in recent years that the DAM has presented a solo show dedicated to a giant in French art, having previously examined the careers of two of Bonnard's more famous contemporaries, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Henri Matisse. Bonnard is no Toulouse-Lautrec or Matisse, but he's not chopped liver, either. His weirdly compelling paintings have inspired many artists, from the color-field painters of the 1960s to the neo-expressionists of the 1980s. Not bad for a guy who hit his stride in the 1880s. And he's never been as highly regarded as he is now.

Born in 1867, Bonnard attended the Académie Julian in 1887, where he met Paul Sérusier and Maurice Denis. The following year, the three helped found a group called the Nabis (the Hebrew word for "prophets"). The Nabis were the original boho artists, pushing modernism to its limits while camping out in Brittany with Gauguin, who was not a Nabi but cheered them on anyway. Like Gauguin, they decried the sophistication of France and championed the primitive nature of art and humanity. There is a crude and naive character to Bonnard's paintings from this period; they are dimly lit, muddy and realist.

But his love of the exotic ultimately led him to Japanese art, resulting in an important period of art-nouveau prints and posters that have long guaranteed Bonnard's place in the annals of art history. Finally, in the early twentieth century, especially in the 1920s and '30s, he painted his great post-impressionist paintings, done in profusions of sunny, toned-up colors. It's these big, bright pieces that dominate the show and overwhelm the realist and Japanist works.

Denver is one of only two cities to be graced with Bonnard; the other is Washington, D.C., where it was seen earlier this season at the Phillips Collection. Though the DAM was a co-organizer, the exhibit clearly springs from the loins of the Phillips. After all, the DAM doesn't own a single Bonnard -- not even a print or poster -- while Duncan Phillips, the D.C. museum's original donor, was a big Bonnard booster and assembled the country's largest hoard of his works, which are now, predictably enough, in the Phillips Collection. Hence the existence of a Bonnard specialist, Elizabeth Hutton Turner, who put the show together with assistance from scores of other scholars, curators and historians, including DAM modern and contemporary curator Gwen Chanzit.

The chief challenge Chanzit faced was to make the show, originally conceived for the residential settings of the Phillips, fit into the conventional museum spaces of the DAM's Hamilton galleries. In Washington, the exhibit split Bonnard's career into two periods, early and late, but Chanzit dispensed with that formal and intellectual device for the DAM's version. I understand why Chanzit allowed form to triumph over content -- to make the show easier to appreciate by putting the easier-to-appreciate later works at the front of the show. The earlier pieces are dark, the later ones bright, so Chanzit believed that if Bonnard had been presented in chronological, rather than thematic, order, it would have gotten off to a slow start and failed to keep viewers interested.

She may be right, but I still wish she'd dealt with the history of Bonnard's development. She could have done so quite easily by presenting a mini-retrospective within the first gallery, bringing the appealing later work to the front while providing viewers with an art-historical message.

But there is an upside to Chanzit's anti-historical approach: the je ne sais quoi of a purely aesthetic experience. Chanzit put a lot of thought into creating vistas from one gallery to the next, using major works to pull viewers in and propel them through the maze of galleries that make up the Hamilton. The use of an eye-catching glimpse in a vista is seen in spades at the very start of the show, where Chanzit put a pair of monumental-sized later-era paintings on the wall facing the entry. The oil-on-canvas paintings -- "The Abduction of Europa," from 1919, and "Earthly Paradise," from 1916-1920 -- are breathtaking.

Together, these two out-of-this-world paintings reveal how readily Bonnard absorbed and transformed the innovations of his art-star pals. There's a lot of Monet in these paintings, especially in the all-over-ness of the compositions. There's a dash of Gauguin in the exoticism of the subjects and the poses of the figures. There's even a pinch of Cézanne in the stylized women in the foreground of "Europa" and in the tree in the center of "Earthly Paradise." But Bonnard orchestrates these varied influences, transforming them into something completely, utterly, and, at times, annoyingly unique to him. There might be a Cézanne-esque tree in "Earthly Paradise," but no one could possibly mistake this painting for a Cézanne -- or a Monet or a Gauguin, for that matter.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia