October 3 1867 is the birthdate of Pierre Bonnard.
He’s not an immediately obvious subject for this blog, given that he was a painter. However for a 20 year period of his long life, and probably with reluctance, he took up the camera, because it was a trend, and because photography had become much easier with the advent of the Kodak. Emile Zola, August Strindberg, Edgar Degas, Edvard Munch, Franz von Stuck, Maurice Denis, and close friend Edouard Vuillard, all had cameras and all were influenced by the still relatively new medium. Bonnard also associated with the Lumiére brothers.
He didn’t learn how to enlarge his photos and makes no mention of his photography in his writing. Bonnard’s period of highest photographic activity was 1898-1916. Contrary to the perception that Bonnard never directly quoted from his photographs, he did use them to capture the fleeting domestic moments for which he is admired.
It is one such work, La Sieste, completed in 1900, in which one can discern the impact of photography on this, arguably the most painterly of painters.
We in Victoria, Australia, are blessed with its public possession, in our National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, since it is a painting with a noble pedigree. Acquired from the artist by Paris dealer-collector Ambroise Vollard (1866–1939) of Paris, before November 1905; then purchased for the collection of Gertrude Stein (1874–1946) and Leo Stein (1872–1947), Paris, where it hung November 1905 until 1907 until exchanged (for a Renoir) through Ambroise Vollard, who sold it on in 1907 to dealer Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Paris, from whom by 1914 art historian Sir Kenneth Clark (1903–83) purchased it for his Upper Terrace House, Hampstead, London, residence where it remained until c. 1943. It then became the possession of Mrs S. Kaye, Cookham-on-Thames, Berkshire c.1943/47–1949, before being passed on to dealer Lefevre Gallery , London, and then quickly snapped up for the NGV on the advice of A. J. L. McDonnell, from the Felton Bequest, 1949.
The painting, though it is not in Bonnard’s later sumptuous, enveloping colour, evokes a mood that many have identified as post-coital. It is day. Marthe gives herself up to lassitude, curving like an Art Nouveau tendril across sheets so rumpled that it is only after minutes of contemplation that we notice the beribboned dog, also deeply asleep, shape-shifting amongst discarded underclothes. The detail of Marthes’ toes, still curled in sleepy delight, and her foreshortened leg serve as an anchor for our eye from which it can roam lazily into the shadow drawn over the model’s slumbering dark head and flushed face, where it is arrested by the crowded forms of a still life comprising the coupled vessels of a shared afternoon tea. Bonnard prompts us to share the passage into satiated sleep with the gracefully recumbent figure from our own memories, through still more subtle means; the shifting floral wallpaper patterns mirror and abstract the effect of waking consciousness giving way to fancy-filled dream, then the steady, deep respiration of full unconsciousness.
The figure’s pose, Sasha Newman asserts, is based, right down to the way the left foot rests on the calf of the right leg, on a Roman copy of a Greek sculpture in the Louvre. Such is art history.
For the photographer, a more profound revelation comes from seeing the way Bonnard shapes the facts of his peaceful domestic life and environment into the matter of art. A series of photographs he took of Marthe prior to making the painting, probably as direct studies for it, reveal the transformation; they are less about her pose than about the space, this bedroom they share, and how it becomes the canvas.
Many art historians take the position that Bonnard rarely worked directly from the model, preferring to rely on memory for the sake of concentrating on paint and its effect, and that he certainly did not work from photographs. But perhaps during this period, and especially in this landmark work, photography served as a bridge to his mature style, before he became one with colour. Reminiscing on Bonnard’s great gifts, Maurice Denis recalled the past: ‘Where are the days, Bonnard, when by perversity (for the sake of argument) to upset Serusier’s pontification you said to him that if they could do photography in colour “les peintres seraient foutus”? (Denis ‘L’Époche du Symbolisme’ G.B.A. 1934 pp. 165ff, from Théories, Hermann, Paris 1964 p.66). In this, I look to Aaron Scharf’s 1968 Art and Photography and share his conviction that more artists use photography than would admit it, but that the best eschew slavish copying.
As a photographer, with a simple folding camera, he has a great deal to teach us about light as emotion. The vignetting of the simple Kodak lens, and its wide-angle field, find their way into the painting as much as do the patterns of mattress ticking and wallpaper that the film records, to become part of his idea, to effect his transmission of physical sensation.