The brain secretes thought like the liver secretes bile.
— Pierre Cabanis, 18th c. French physiologist

Pierre Bonnard, The Palm, 1926, Oil on canvas, 147 x 114 cm, Philips Collection Washington DC

Press your forehead close to someone else’s: a single eye will float forth and the nose will dislocate in a decidedly Cubist way. Press your eyelids while facing light and you will see geometric patterns of bright sparks like Op Art. We all know that we can manipulate what we see and that that ability forms a part of our visual knowledge of the world. Learning to notice more of the myriad peculiarities of perception and formalizing them with tools and concepts constitutes the methodology of art making. Those who can communicate something expressive of the unique particulars of their own visual experience and connect it to others — those people are artists. Certain great ones, Cezanne and Van Gogh among them, made work that forges a direct link with viewers in a very specific way, by re-creating how they themselves actively experienced the process of looking. The kinds of marks they made—their dots and dabs, precise erasures, the way they rubbed and overlaid their colors – all those things provide viewers a virtual transcription of the lived experience they had with their painted motifs–whether cypress trees or peaches in a bowl–as viewed in the moment, essentially allowing us to see through their eyes as though we are neurologically linked to them. Much has been written about Bonnard’s exquisite mechanisms for notating his world stemming from his oft-quoted observation that painting was, for him, “the transcription of the adventures of the optic nerve.”1 John Elderfield enlarged on that idea by suggesting that Bonnard replaced “artificial perspective with the record of natural vision,”2 essentially documenting the processes of seeing with his “stews of multitudinous colors scrubbed and burnished into low value contrast.”3 But Bonnard’s vision was a lot more than just optical.

Picasso famously described Bonnard’s unique way of breaking up form into many thousands of color marks as mere “daubing,” but that approach to synthesizing vision has been influential to a number of important contemporary artists like, for example, Keltie Ferris and Chris Ofili. Their work also evinces the experience of interior vision — flashes of color, light and hypnagogic abundance. But Bonnard’s vision was different. It extended beyond the optical or perceptual into the very nature of thought itself, as the brain seeks meaning, finds patterns and creates associations out of random experience. Bonnard’s psychological astuteness, aligned with formal inventiveness, played out in compositions that unfold layer upon layer of sensory knowledge. That’s what made him a great painter.

Bonnard was a quiet artist who worked consistently in the fray while other modernists were running pitched battles, attacking the very core of how we conceive of form and style. Yet I would claim that Bonnard incited a revolution too, involving an elaboration of what permissible content can be. Bonnard’s was a revolution in subject matter, turning a dining room table into a phantasmagoric carnival and a woman at her toilette into a primal spectacle, and that makes him as important to contemporary painters as Cubists were to previous generations. Bonnard rejected Cubism’s stylistic imperatives partly because they did not serve his desire to insinuate content directly into the viewer’s lived experience. He understood intuitively how to construct, say, a sensory double for our love of a warm bath. I‘ve written about his use of a menstrual rag in Large Yellow Nude, and continue to admire the audacity of presenting to the public an item of such utter interiority that no other painter, to my knowledge, has ever depicted. That was a form of bravura too—albeit slyer than the swagger of Cubism’s multiple perspectives or Expressionism’s collisions of color. Those gestures, once so daring, are now as comfortable to look at as an armchair.

New eras bring the need for new forerunners, whose undervalued innovations and insights make greater sense in light of a new Zeitgeist. Contemporary artists often search out older artists who might provide them with alternative ways of conceiving pictorial worlds for the next wave of picture-making and conceptualizing. The Chicago Imagists, for example, while descended from Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism, rediscovered the sinuous eccentricities of the Sienese School to better express the social changes of the 60s. They were looking for fresh imagery and figurative styles that deviated from conventional Old Master painting while still engaging with abstraction and narrative, and found those qualities in the likes of Giovanni Di Paolo and Taddeo Gaddi.

I would describe Bonnard as a bridge artist—one who connects to the past and anticipates the future. His work can be seen in the lineage of Piero Della Francesca, who shares his appreciation for geometry and taut compositional matrices, and of Velazquez, whose self-conscious subjects and impressions of pulsing air anticipate Bonnard’s flickering marks. Masaccio gave us human sorrow, but Velazquez was one of the first artists to paint so convincingly the vulnerability inherent in social position: his Infantas –with their natty wigs, mirroring in shape their royal gowns, that function as psychological tropes for the burdens of wealth, power and position– look more like fashion victims today than royalty. Bonnard’s The Boxer (1931) expresses a similar pathos. Differences in technique aside, the squall of paint is similar in both artists, overwhelming any sense of authority in Bonnard’s supposedly strong male figure, as he succumbs to the storm of mark-making. This too is an image of feckless posturing: “I got carried away with color and I sacrificed form to it,” Bonnard admitted. The pose trumps the man and undoes him.

Angela Dufresne, Strangers When We Met Gay Bar, 2010, Oil on canvas, 4.5′ x 9′

Bonnard’s dissolution of form foreshadows American visionary artists like Charles Birchfield, and later Informel movements in abstract art. And I see distinct nods to Bonnard in some of the most interesting figurative artists today, whether they know or acknowledge it. I’m thinking for instance of Peter Doig, Angela Dufresne, Nicole Eisenman, Lisa Sanditz and Hernan Bas. Bonnard’s tangled gardens and thick air are evident in the eccentricities of Sanditz’s and Doig’s phantasmagoric landscapes; his disappearing figures rematerialize similarly in Dufresne’s and Doron Langberg’s paintings. His color palette and contrasting light have clearly influenced Dana Schutz and Kyle Coniglio. And echoes of the awkward revelations and sudden apparitions in his group portraits resound in the bathetic dinner parties of Nicole Eisenman.

Bonnard anticipates the narrative urgency of such contemporary painters, all of whom have distinct stories to tell about gender fluidity, repression, suburban anomie, the stultification of the individual and depredation of the landscape by mainstream consumer culture. His empathy for women stuck in stifling domesticity, the way he understood the repressive nature of bourgeois life, is evident in the way he composed The White Interior (1932) with its awkwardly bent-over woman, hemmed in by background walls, radiator and door. That woman is further cornered, almost pierced, by a foreground table that virtually juts into her stomach.

This is the first section of an essay first published in ArtPulse Magazine Vol. 7 in 2015 under the title ‘Bonnard’s Other Avant Garde.’ Part II will be posted next week.

Julie Heffernan, Self-Portrait with Scroll 1, 2017, Oil on canvas,  60 x 54 inches

  1. Pierre Bonnard, ‘La Peinture ou la transcription des aventures du nerf optique’. Diary note for Feb. 1, 1934 in Bonnard, exh. Cat., Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1984, p. 69.
  2. John Elderfield, Bonnard, Cat., Tate Gallery, London; Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1998, p.33.
  3. Stephen Knudsen, email conversation with Julie Heffernan, 8/28/2015

Julie Heffernan is a Professor of Fine Arts at Montclair State University and represented by PPOW in New York City and Catharine Clark in San Francisco, CA. She is the recipient of numerous grants and awards including a National Endowment for the Arts and Fullbright Fellowship. Her work is in the collections of the Brooklyn Museum and VMFA, among others.