Edited by Felix Krämer

Prestel Publishing. 240 pages. £45. ISBN 978-3791-35632-7

Reviewed by Jim Burns

There are plenty of books about artists and writers who were friends, but then fell out over some problem or other. It probably makes for a good story if an author can recount tales of arguments, gossip, back-stabbing, feuds, physical fights, and scores settled in novels and autobiographies, or even perhaps in a painting. But the heartening thing about the friendship between Henri Matisse and Pierre Bonnard was that it lasted for many years and that it never came apart, nor did the admiration that each genuinely felt for the other’s work.

Bonnard was born in 1867, Matisse in 1869. Coincidentally, both studied law when they were young, and then gave it up to concentrate on painting. Bonnard established himself quite quickly in the Parisian art world. He had attracted attention with his illustrations for books, and designs for posters, including a notable one advertising champagne, and with his friends, Édouard Vuillard and Félix Valloton, he formed a group called the “Nabis” (derived from a Jewish word for ”prophets”).  It’s said that work from his Nabi involvements was “characterised by a free play of perspectives and a markedly flat handling of paint”.  By 1906 he was sufficiently established to have a solo exhibition at the Galerie Ambroise Vollard. Matisse visited the exhibition, but he had probably known Bonnard for some time before that.

While Bonnard was prospering, Matisse was struggling to make a living from his art work. He took odd jobs to get by, and was hired at an hourly rate to paint a frieze of laurel garlands at the Grand Palais for the 1900 Paris World Exhibition. His breakthrough came in 1905 when he exhibited “Woman with a Hat” at the Salon d’automne. Critics attacked him, and labelled him and André Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck, and Albert Marquet as “fauves” (wild beasts), a name which, like others meant to be derogatory, was cheerfully adopted and went down in art history.

Matisse’s career began to develop after the fuss over “Woman with a Hat” caused artists and critics to pay closer consideration to his work. By 1917, when he began to spend more time on the Riviera, he was already being talked about as a major influence in the world of avant-garde art. He finally made a permanent move to the Mediterranean coast in 1921.

Bonnard, too, moved to Southern France in 1926. Both artists clearly felt confident enough of their talents to convince them that they could survive away from the hothouse atmosphere of Paris. Bonnard’s “airy, loose brushwork and use of delicate, shimmering colours” was seen as coming from the 19th century Impressionist tradition. His own statement that he was the “last of the Impressionists” enforced this view, and he was possibly looked on as belonging more to the nineteenth than the twentieth century. With this in mind, he perhaps wasn’t accorded the attention that Matisse was getting with his “brilliant colours and planar, starkly contrasted pictorial compositions”.

It was certainly true that, within a few years, Matisse could afford quite luxurious accommodation and a chauffeur-driven car, whereas Bonnard lived in a sparsely furnished house. There may have been personality reasons for this, of course. Matisse was an astute businessman when it came to promoting and selling his work, whereas Bonnard was noted for his reticence and his reluctance to part with paintings, even when people offered to buy them. He would say that a painting wasn’t finished. And if he did agree to let someone purchase the work when it was completed, there was no guarantee that it would be what the prospective customer thought he was getting. Bonnard had become dissatisfied with what he had done and changed it.

 The differences in working practices between Matisse and Bonnard are striking. Both were “convinced of the importance of reality as the origin of their work”. And together they may well have revived the idea of the “interior”, which “fell somewhat into disrepute” as the twentieth century developed. Matisse’s interiors perhaps reflected his 1908 statement about the kind of art he aspired to create:

“What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or disturbing subject matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue”.

It has been suggested that Bonnard’s paintings have “a sense of the uncanny lurking behind their blithe facade of beauty and happiness”. Their darker (compared to Matisse) tones often do seem to suggest that there is a tension in the relationship between the model and the artist. They also “unmistakably and repeatedly tended to dissolve the materiality of things in his paintings”. His still lives show a “distinct inclination towards abstraction”. What is portrayed is “the emotionally felt recollection of a situation and less the actual seeing of it”.

This tension referred to may have come about because Bonnard mostly used one model, his partner, Marthe. She later became his wife. He did, at one point, have another model, a situation which ended tragically when Marthe discovered that the relationship had gone beyond modelling, intervened to break it up, and the other woman committed suicide. It’s not clear how much this affected Bonnard. He continued to paint Marthe in various poses for many years, but always seems to have seen her as forever young. There is a colourful description of her by the photographer, Brassai :

“With her slender, graceful body, her luxurious mass of hair, her periwinkle-blue eyes, her high, firm breasts, and her long legs, she’d been his favourite model all her life…….This febrile woman, with her delicate health, who spent her time indoors, who was fond of water and the warmth of the bathroom and bed sheets, was the embodiment of the sensual woman in Bonnard’s paintings who dream, do their hair, dress, or gaze at themselves in their mirrors”.

Bonnard appears to have sometimes used photographs as an aid, and Beate Söntgen notes that he “generally painted without the model being present, even if several images suggest the co-presence of model and painter”. It’s further said that “the figure portrayed is generally constrained by the space, anchored into it by means of framings and boundaries internal to the image”.

There is a contrast with Matisse who “always painted in the presence of the model”, whether of his family circle or professional models. The latter usually became “part of the household and often worked together with the artist for a long time”. He was quoted as saying, “I am completely dependent on my model”.  In Dita Amory’s essay on the models in both artists’ paintings, it’s said that: “All of Matisse’s nudes are rich in sensuality and allusions to fertility. Matisse actually admitted to the erotic charge, confident that his powers as a painter would subdue the impulse”. It was later in his life, when he was turned sixty, that he met Lydia Delectorskaya, who became his model and studio assistant. His relationship with her eventually led to his wife, Amélie, leaving him.

Living as they both did in the rich landscape of the Riviera, with its vibrant colours and light that was reflected in the waters of the Mediterranean, it’s interesting to see how each reacted to it. Daniel Zamani, writing about landscape and nature, remarks that “Matisse was never considered much of a landscapist per se, his forays into the genre sporadic and typically prompted by the direct experience of travel”. The sun certainly influenced his paintings, in the sense that it often filled his interiors with light, but he seems to have preferred to mostly work indoors.

Bonnard, by contrast, did paint landscapes in the South of France: “Indeed much of his reputation as a leading heir of Impressionism was due to his exuberant depictions of sun-drenched Mediterranean vistas, Northern landscapes, and pastoral scenes”. His palette lightened when he moved south, at least insofar as when he painted outdoors. In 1940 he wrote to Matisse:

“During my morning walks I amuse myself by defining the different conceptions of landscape, landscape as ‘space’, intimate landscape, decorative landscape, etc. But as for vision, I see things differently every day, the sky, the objects, everything changes continually, you can drown in it. But that’s what brings life”.

I can’t imagine Matisse writing something like that. He was inclined to pontificate about art more than Bonnard ever did, though the latter did keep notebooks, in the form of pocket calendars, in which he jotted down reflections on painting.  It’s intriguing to note, however, that, on the whole, their letters are said not to contain a great many comments about art, and instead often focus more on mundane matters relating to their respective states of health, domestic concerns and, during the Nazi occupation, the difficulties encountered when trying to obtain petrol, food, etc.

Bonnard’s wife died in 1942, and despite whatever problems he had experienced with her he was clearly affected by her absence. She had been difficult at times. Margrit Hahnloser-Ingold, writing about the friendship between Matisse, Bonnard, and “the Collector Couple Hahnloser-Bühler”, says that, in the late-1920s, Marthe showed signs of “increasing unsociability and paranoia……She forbade Bonnard’s friends and colleagues from entering the house….She tried to seal her husband off from the outside world”. Against the advice of doctors, Bonnard refused to have her cared for in a clinic”.

There is, incidentally, an amusing, and perhaps enlightening, reminiscence by Hans Robert Hahnloser of visiting Bonnard with his parents, and being served tea “in the greatest variety of fragments of old cups”.

Both artists created works on paper at times in their lives. I think Matisse’s are probably those that are now most remembered, especially the coloured paper cut-outs he produced in his later years. They have been exhibited and praised in recent times, and his 1947 publication, Jazz, has been reprinted more than once.  I recall an exhibition at the Luxembourg in Paris in 2005, where much of this sort of work was displayed, and I have to acknowledge I found it entertaining rather than exciting. But there were some excellent drawings by Matisse also displayed.

However, the drawings by Bonnard included in the book being reviewed very much took my fancy. I was particularly impressed by his 1898 Some Aspects of Paris Life, published by Ambroise Vollard, in which he produced a number of small, but effective sketches of scenes in the city. They capture the atmosphere of the period.

Matisse Bonnard: Long Live Painting! Is a beautifully-produced book, showing not only how the two artists remained friends over the years, but also how they created, in their separate ways, a body of work that has retained its vigour and intensity. I admit to a preference for Bonnard, if I have to make a choice, but that’s a purely personal response largely based on reading the essays, looking at the illustrations, and reconsidering an earlier reaction to his work. I visited a Bonnard exhibition of paintings he did while living in Normandy at Giverny in 2011, and at the time was not quite sure how I felt about what I saw. I’m certain I’d look at his work differently now.

There is a nice anecdote relating to Matisse’s loyalty to the memory of his friend. Shortly after Bonnard died a noted French critic wrote an article in which he asked, “Is Pierre Bonnard a great Painter?”. The answer to his own question was “No”. Matisse was furious and wrote a letter to the journal concerned to say that he disagreed with what had been said. He also painted over his copy of the journal with the words: “Yes! I certify that Pierre Bonnard is a great painter, for today and definitely for the future”.   

There is a detailed chronology, notes, and a useful bibliography in the catalogue, which was published in conjunction with the exhibition, Matisse-Bonnard: Long Live Painting! at the Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main, 13th September, 2017, to 14th January, 2018.