Paris, Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Bonnard, May - June 1921, no. 18.
Oslo, Kunstnernes Hus, Pierre Bonnard, January 1939, no. 25 (illustrated).
Oslo, Kunstnernes Hus, Exposition d'Art Français, November - December 1946, no. 35.
Oslo, Kunstnerforbundet, Pierre Bonnard malerier, March - April 1966, no. 22.
Glowing with light and warmth, Bonnard's Bord de mer, sous les pins is a colourist extravaganza, a sumptuous visual hymn to life and beauty. He has created an enticingly paradoxical image, a fashionable scene of bucolic repose from the early 1920s. In it, we see a picnic being enjoyed from a dramatic viewpoint, saturated with the heat and light of the South of France. The deep, deep blue of the Mediterranean draws the viewer in with its lushness and lapis-like intensity. The importance of this painting is shown in Bernheim-Jeune's decision to exhibit it the same year as it was painted. Only a few years later, in 1924, the prominent critic Claude Roger-Marx reaffirmed the painting's status by selecting it as one of the few illustrated works in his small but important 1924 monograph on the artist.
Bonnard had already honed his skills as a colourist in the north of France, even before his fascination with the South flowered. Recent scholarship has made much of the contrast that Bonnard explored in his paintings between the North and the South, and between realism and idealism. His ever-increasing interest in the South and its seeming timelessness and endurability had even taken a mythological turn in some pictures, recalling Matisse's early masterpiece Le bonheur de vivre in the Barnes Foundation. In Bord de mer, sous les pins we are thus presented with an almost Arcadian theme, with people resting and feasting beneath the pines of the Mediterranean, yet it has undergone a transformation and reappeared under a distinctly 1920s light, rather than the more explicitly mythological scene in Le paradis terrestre, completed the previous year. In Bord de mer, sous les pins, Bonnard has presented a modern vision of paradise.
Bonnard had to spend an increasing amount of his time in the South of France, not least for reasons of his wife Marthe's health. It seems likely that Bord de mer, sous les pins depicts Marthe with her dog Black and other close friends on the coast near St Tropez where he spent the winter of 1920 and Spring of 1921 with his old friend Henri Manguin. As an artist occupying the South and making it so integral to his work, Bonnard had long been drawn to the intoxicating light, as well as the deep art historical associations of the area. The distant mountains in Bord de mer, sous les pins are expressly painted using the visual idiom of Cézanne, Bonnard painting the late Master of Aix's territory in his own language, and surpassing it. Likewise, the intense colours of this painting recall the Fauvism of Matisse that Bonnard had ostensibly shrugged off, evident likewise in paintings of the South such as his 1904 image of the Gulf of Saint-Tropez.
Fashionable repose had been a central theme to various earlier artists with whose work Bonnard had been impressed, not least Watteau and Boucher. In these artists, we find once more the images of an almost mythological world of happiness and indulgence, each presented in the idiom of its own age. The picnic in Bord de mer, sous les pins is a logical extension of Watteau's Fête galante in which Bonnard has summoned up a lyrical vision of a modern idyll. Beauty and indulgence are the main subjects here, and it is clear from the exultant feel in Bord de mer, sous les pins that they are subjects that Bonnard himself enjoyed.
This interest in beauty was particularly suited to depictions of nature, as is reflected in a later comment in the artist's own notebooks:
'Show nature when it's beautiful. Everything has its moment of beauty. Beauty is the fulfillment of seeing. Seeing is fulfilled by simplicity and order. Simplicity and order are produced by dividing legible surfaces, grouping compatible colors, etc' (Bonnard, quoted in A. Terrasse, 'Bonnard's Notes,' pp. 51-70, Bonnard: The Late Paintings, ed. S.M. Newman, exh.cat., New York, 1984, p. 69).
In Bord de mer, sous les pins, Bonnard has condensed this beauty through the zesty colours, and also the composition. The above quotation reveals his willingness to alter reality in order to improve it, to lend it more emphasis in pictorial form. Bonnard has thus eschewed strict realism to concentrate on the fields of colour, and also on disrupting them visually with his trademark horizontal and vertical lines, here best exemplified by the trees and the distant coast. In particular, the thin yellow line of the far beach, dividing the green-blue of the mountains from the deep blue of the sea, is golden enough to heighten the burning intensity both of itself and of its surrounding fields. Even some of the figures are presented as colour fields, rather than finely articulated and detailed portraits. In a break with the landscape tradition that would feature in some of Bonnard's most celebrated masterpieces, he has paid almost no attention to the sky, allowing the sea to be the main focus, framed by the near and distant land. This allows Bonnard to fill the canvas with fields of colour, with visual activity, rather than presenting us with a large blue field at the top of the work. It is through this colourist musicality that Bord de mer, sous les pins has its power, its composition filling it with visual, almost legible, rhythms, its various oils meeting in a symphony of expression.
Like many of the great large oil of the period Bord de mer, sous les pins is a landscape painting of the highest order which combines a narrative in progress. In this it has many of the same qualities as the celebrated Gould painting La terrasse à Vernon of 1920-1939 now in The Metropoloitan Museum of Art. There is an intriguing domesticity to the subject matter in this painting, to the scattering of the figures, implying that they are all close to the artist himself, that he is part of the picnic group in his own right, reflecting one of his own criteria for painting: 'One must feel that the painter was there, that he was aware of things in their own light, conceived from the beginning' (Bonnard, quoted in Terrasse, ibid., 1984, p. 52). This adds an extra intensity to the sense of general enjoyment in the piece, the experience of the picnic being one that was enjoyed by Bonnard himself, and which, through the act of painting, he is allowing us to share.
This ability to translate with great intensity his experiences or memories through colour had been a constant thread throughout Bonnard's career. His status as arch-colourist is in part due to his instinctive ability to capture a concentrated, vibrant image of the world through his oils. He had used this to good effect when he worked among the Nabis, as it dovetailed in part with their beliefs in the power of art. The Nabis did not believe in representing the world directly, but in trying to capture the soul or essence of their subject. Their colours were intense in order to provoke intense reactions and emotions, in short, to transmit experience and not just information. Bonnard had shed his interest in Symbolism decades before Bord de mer, sous les pins was painted, yet his colourism is intended to carry out much the same process. Bonnard has condensed the experience as well as the view of the picnic into this painting. The colours are evocative in the extreme, each becoming almost a symbol rather than a representation of the subject that it depicts. In the expert hands of the mature Bonnard, the colours bloom. Yet these colours reach beyond Symbolism and beyond Impressionism, perfectly encapsulating the various elements: trees, people, shade, sea. Bonnard has surpassed the art of his predecessors to create a painting that truly transmits the heat and the light of the South.
The present painting was amongst a group of 24 works which Bonnard exhibited at Galerie Berheim-Jeune in 1921.This particular year he chose to show at Bernheim rather than exhibit at the Salon. Painted on the grand scale, this highly complicated and refined composition hung alongside several other full scale pieces including his celebrated group of large format decorations executed between 1916 and 1920. These included his Symphonie pastorale (D.866), Mediterranée (D.867), Le Paradis terrestre (D.867a;The Art Institute of Chicago) and Les travailleurs à la Grand Jatte (D.868:The National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo). The majority of works in the show were Mediterranean landscapes suffused with the striking light and colours of the region. Along with the Onstad paintings by Bonnard, Bord de mer, sous les pins reflects an interesting aspect of Scandinavian collecting, having been purchased by January 1939 by the Kunstnernes Hus in Oslo, a provenance that also reflects the picture's quality. Bonnard's works have featured in several prestigious Scandinavian collections, perhaps reflecting a Northern interest in Southern light, as well as the Munch-like use of colour in his later works. Since its initial exhibition at Bernheim the year of its execution, Bord de mer, sous les pins has never been exhibited outside Norway.
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