Revisiting Bonnard’s Japonisme

ISSN 2167-8812

Open Inquiry Archive

 Vol. 1, No. 7 (2012)

Revisiting Bonnard’s Japonisme


David E. Gliem

In 1888 Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), along with the artists Edouard Vuillard, Paul Sérusier, Maurice Denis, Paul Ranson, Henri-Gabriel Ibels and the scholar Auguste Cazalis, formed a coterie and called themselves the Nabis, a name based on the Hebrew word for “prophet.”  They exhibited and worked on various decorative projects together and remained a cohesive group until 1896.  What intrigued them most, and Bonnard in particular, was Japanese art, which was then very much in vogue.

The study of Bonnard’s Japonisme has long been of interest to scholars. On the whole the Bonnard literature shows the artist’s direct formal ties to Japanese art (mostly woodblock prints).  Art scholars have also, in a few instances, shown that Bonnard endeavored to divulge the values inherent in the forms of Japanese art in order to apply what he learned to his own creative efforts.[Note 1]  What is most striking is the implication by some writers that Bonnard may have been directly inspired by Asian thought.[2]  Though no letters, notes, or other writings by him or others are explicit on this point, the Symbolist milieu in which he emerged as an artist was heavily steeped in the traditions of the East and his work demonstrates his having assimilated them.[3]  Comparisons can be made between Bonnard’s art and Buddhist thought and Zen aesthetics, indicating multiple nodes of contact and suggesting that these commonalities are more than coincidental.  Thus, through an inquiry into various avenues of creative expression and philosophic and critical investigation, what we hope to gain is a greatly expanded definition of Japonisme and a clearer understanding of its influence on Bonnard’s rich and highly complex aesthetic.  Before we deal directly with Bonnard’s art, however, it will be instructive to locate the place of Asian thought within the nineteenth century, and especially in Bonnard’s Symbolist context.

Asian Thought and the Symbolists

Although the earliest mention of Buddhism in the West can be traced back to the writings of the thirteenth-century Franciscan Friar William of Rubrock (Willem van Ruusbroec), not until the nineteenth century did European scholars, following the philological principles established by their eighteenth-century predecessors, begin to study Buddhism and other Asian religions in earnest.[4]  One of the most important of these early scholars was the brilliant French philologist Eugène Burnouf.[5]

Burnouf’s profound grasp of both Sanskrit and Pali, combined with an exacting philological intellect, made him an ideal person to construct from the original source material an intelligible scheme of ideas which would become the prototype of the European concept of Buddhism.  In 1844 he published his most important work, the monumental L’Introduction à l’histoire du buddhisme indien.  In almost six hundred extremely dense pages, he offered the West the first detailed scientific exegesis of Indian Buddhist history, doctrines and texts.  The sheer scope of Burnouf’s tome, relying entirely on obscure Sanskrit and Tibetan texts, is awesome.  Burnouf himself was entirely cognizant of the difficulties involved, describing the quagmire into which he plunged headlong as “a completely new subject, with innumerable schools, an immense metaphysical apparatus, an endless mythology; everywhere disorder and hopeless vagueness on questions of place and time.”[6]  Even though he was faced with such enormous obstacles, he became the first to succeed in bringing about intellectual order to a chaotic soup of disjointed ideas, the basic form of which is upheld by scholars to this day.

Inspired by Burnouf’s example, his followers—Albrecht Weber, Jules Barthélemy Saint-Hilaire, Jean Baptiste François Obry, Philippe Edouard Foucaux, Friedrich Max Müller, and others—continued to elucidate Buddhism based on the hard evidence of its own writings.  Through Burnouf’s work and that of his followers, there was no longer any need to refer to Buddhism’s actual manifestations in the East.  When compared to these new revelations of scientific research, such manifestations were invariably discovered to be corrupt and inadequate reflections of the real thing.[7]

In addition to introducing and clarifying Indian thought, the groundbreaking work of these early orientalists had three other important consequences.  First, it brought an aspect of the Eastern world-view into the consciousness of a wider audience as more and more writers, stimulated by and relying on the research of these pioneering academics, published works on the topic of Asian religions and thought for the everyday reader.[8]  The second consequence of this enthusiasm for Buddhism in Europe (and America) was that it prepared the way for the feverish fascination with Japanese culture that overtook the West in the last four decades of the nineteenth century.  Soon after Japan’s borders were opened in 1854,[9] writers, philosophers, thinkers and collectors, like the American and English scholars Ernest Fenollosa,[10] Lafcadio Hearn, Edward Morse, Percival Lowell,[11] William Sturgis Bigelow[12] and others, published important books and articles on Japanese art, philosophy and religion.  In France, the intellectual fervor over Japan and other Asian lands was encouraged by the establishment of government-sponsored institutions the primary goals of which were to collect and display Asian artifacts and disseminate knowledge about Eastern cultures.  The most significant of these institutions founded during late nineteenth century was the Musée Guimet, established in Lyon in 1879.[13]  The first museum devoted to Asian religious studies, it also has the distinction of being the first institution in the West to give museum status to Asian art.

The Musée Guimet was the culmination of years of toil by its founder, the industrialist Émile Guimet.[14]  In 1876, Guimet was charged by the French Ministère de l’Instruction Publique with the mission of traveling to the East to study the religions of China, Japan and Southeast Asia.[15]  When he returned in 1878, Guimet brought with him thousands of books about Eastern religions, thought and culture, and an enormous cache of artworks, all of which would eventually constitute the core of his new museum.

Above all, Guimet wanted to advance knowledge of Asian religions and philosophy in the West.  He considered his museum much more than just a place to entertain one’s eye, or orientalist fantasies.  He saw it as an educational tool, as a place where the public could learn more about Eastern culture.  To achieve his mission Guimet collaborated with many archaeologists, historians and other specialists, to produce highly regarded scholarly publications.[16]  Guimet also published illustrated guides of the museum that included narrative descriptions of the objects on display as well as summaries of the religious ideas that inspired their creation.  So not only could one read about Asian thought and religions in Guimet’s extensive library, one could also muse over the visible manifestations of those ideas within the museum’s galleries.

All of the major Eastern religions and arts were well represented in Guimet’s museum.  But in keeping with the craze for Japan and to cater to his own particular tastes and prejudices, the Japanese collections—representing Shintoism and Buddhism as well as the more esoteric sects of Zen, Tendai, Shingon, Nichiren, Shinshû and Jôdo—were particularly well placed among the museum’s many salons.  Japan also dominated the library holdings as well as its décor, which featured a Japanese Buddha and antique columns.  And according to historian Bernard Frank, Guimet even invited Japanese Buddhist priests to conduct authentic religious ceremonies for the public within the museum’s galleries.[17]

Accompanying Guimet on his travels throughout Asia was the French artist Félix Régamey.  He was responsible for visually documenting their trip.  Soon after they returned from their travels, they began collaborating on a beautifully written and wonderfully illustrated travel book documenting their experiences in Japan.  The book, Promenades Japonaises, Tokio Nikko, was published in 1878 and, according to David Bromfield, was probably “the first well-informed, truly popular book on Japan.”[18]  This fascinating book covers many aspects of Japanese culture and was particularly instrumental in promoting Buddhism.  The significance of this book (which was reprinted in 1880), Guimet’s other publications and the museum for the dissemination of Buddhist ideas cannot, according to Bromfield, be overestimated.[19]

Starting with Burnouf on through the founding of the Musée Guimet, there was an increasing and intensifying preoccupation with Asian religious and philosophical ideas in the West.  Thus, the third and most important consequence of the introduction and eventual popularization of these ideas was, in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, the revival and development of creative philosophies and visual and literary aesthetic systems all of which demonstrate an assimilation of the Eastern world-view.  This is evidenced, in part, by an interest in Schopenhauer,[20] Neoplatonism,[21] the occult,[22] the philosophy of Henri Bergson,[23] the poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé,[24] and the founding of the Theosophical Society.[25]  All generated an immense following, especially among the Symbolists and the Nabis, and other artists and writers dissatisfied with Western philosophic and aesthetic traditions.

The Nabis and other young artists of the day railed harshly against Impressionist art with its foundation in observable appearances.  As a general rule, the Symbolist artists used objects drawn from the external world only insofar as they could serve as the means through which abstract ideas, and hence “Truth,” could be conveyed concretely.  They insisted as well that the representation of this innovative subject matter must in itself assume new form.  The program of Symbolism, therefore, demanded a new literary and visual language commensurate with the demands of its content.  Eclectic and far-flung as the Symbolist movement was, the Nabis distinguished themselves among their peers by their commitment to a single philosophic position with regard to art.  “All were agreed,” wrote George Mauner:

that the primary object was “the life” and not “the work,” which was only an external, fragmentary manifestation of a more significant whole.  The Nabis’ criterion, then, was simply whether or not a picture, a carving, or any act, for that matter, succeeded in evoking this greater world.[26]

In seeking to understand “this greater world” and to find a means for visually expressing it, the Nabis explored a whole host of new ideas and art forms, from the occult to Eastern art, all of which undermined and challenged the authority of Western positivism and traditional values in the arts.  Wary of superficial art produced according to academic standards, the Nabis shunned trompe l’oeil and all other illusionistic devices in an effort to produce images that in their view were technically more honest, capable of greater expressive force, charged with spiritual significance, and offered a much-expanded view of life.  Indeed, their distinction is the high degree to which, in the 1890s, the Nabis developed a visual statement of the Symbolist aesthetic in France.

While Bonnard was an active member of the Nabis, he emerged as an independent professional artist and established those principles and values that guided his art for the remainder of his long career.  When Bonnard wrote on January 22, 1934, that “Untruth is cutting out a piece of nature and copying it,” and on January 18, 1939, “That an inner feeling of beauty coincides with nature, that’s the point,” he was simply reinstating his allegiance to the Symbolist lessons he learned as a youth.[27]  For Bonnard it was clear that those intellectually intense and productive years of his early career marked an important period of formal experimentation and philosophical investigation that eventually resulted in a synthesis between form and content, laying the foundation upon which much of his later art would be built.

To Bonnard and his fellow Symbolists, Japonisme introduced much more than a new way of seeing—which had fascinated the Impressionist so much—it also introduced them to a new way of understanding and examining the world about them.  Convention and tradition centered on Cartesian reason was superseded by a necessary re-evaluation of the human condition.  The Occident’s encounter with the East uncovered prodigious gaps in human knowledge.  The Symbolists delved into this unknown, that was manifest in art and literature as a break in the conventional modes of representation; the reader or spectator notices an increasingly more radical obfuscation of a clear, linear, prosaic or mimetic representation of the world.  An avant-garde work of art or poetry, then, was no longer judged by how well the artist or writer had represented conventional ideals or common reality, but by how the work represented this new enigma of human experience, one that was no longer a purely Christian, Positivistic, and Eurocentric view of the world, but one that embodied the Asian world view.  Via its material and philosophical manifestations, Japonisme integrated itself into the cultural life of the West.  As the nineteenth-century drew to a close, the movement intensified to a fevered pitch and acquired ideological proportions.  Its effect was profound and enduring.[28]

Writing in 1892, Symbolist critic Eugène Morel observed: “It must be stated from the beginning, our modern art comes straight from Japan.”[29]  For the Symbolists, Japanese art represented a break from the material representation and interpretation of the world (whether the represented world be material or spiritual) to a more spiritual interpretation and understanding of the world.  On the one hand, Japanese art expressed a certain Realism; on the other hand, it transcended this realism by depicting what lay behind the empirically observed world.  “It is evident,” wrote Ary Renan of the Japanese printmaker, Hokusai, in Artistic Japan, “that there are two men in the author of the Manga: the naturalist and the idealist.  The latter term need not astonish anybody.  Hokusai is not only in love with visible nature; he is also a dreamer, an imaginative painter.”[30]  After mentioning the names of Poe and Baudelaire, Renan continued:

Is it not remarkable to find in the work of an artist of the extreme East the realisation of those dreams and fancies which the most advanced schools of literature in England and France have believed to be only encountered by them alone?  Who, we ask, is the artist who had made farther voyage into the unreal world—we were going to say the suggested world?[31]

Even before Renan, critics applauded the symbolist-like qualities of Asian art.  Already by 1876 the American scholar James Jackson Jarves had observed:

In other words it [Asian symbolism] conceives art to be a supreme spiritual function of man, appealing to his faculties of mind more than those of his body, and best fulfilling its office when it affects the imagination by limitless capacity of suggestion, in preference to pleasing the senses by superior skill of downright realistic imitation.[32]

In 1888 Lowell explained that:

A Japanese painting is a poem rather than a picture.  It portrays an emotion called up by a scene, and not the scene itself in all its elaborate complexity.  It undertakes to give only so much of it as is vital to that particular feeling, and intentionally omits all irrelevant details.  It is the expression caught from a glimpse of the soul of nature by the soul of man….The Far Oriental fully realizes the power of simplicity.  This principle is his fundamental canon of pictorial art.  To understand his paintings, it is from this standpoint they must be regarded; not as soulless photographs of scenery, but as poetic presentations of the spirit of the scenes.[33]

The late nineteenth-century curiosity in non-Western philosophical doctrines and religions quickly became rooted in the many art works from the period, especially those produced by the Nabis and other artists of the Symbolist milieu.  Far-Eastern thought, for instance, had always been of interest to Gauguin and we see its influence in his work.  Between 1889 and 1890, Gauguin painted an enigmatic portrait of Meyer de Haan entitled Nirvana, which has been connected to the “literature, poetry and philosophy, as well as the plethora of theosophic works” concerned with the Buddhist concept of Nirvana.”[34]  (Figure 1)A later woodcut Gauguin made around 1895 shows a seated Buddha in a state of deep meditation. (Figure 2)  This image, as well as earlier woodcuts he made in 1893-94 for Noa Noa, was based upon the famous Borobudur Buddhist reliefs in Java reproductions of which Gauguin always kept on hand.  We even find references to Far-Eastern notions in his letters to friends and acquaintances.  In June 1890 Gauguin wrote to Emile Bernard from Le Pouldu of his current disenchantment with life and art in the West and expressed hope for a new position in Tonkin.  In this letter he also wrote metaphorically of: “All of the Far East, the great philosophy written in letters of gold in all their art.”[35]

Odilon Redon, a good friend of Gauguin, was perhaps one of the first Symbolist artists to be interested in Asian thought and religions.  Already in the 1860s, Armand Clavaud had introduced Redon to Hindu poetry, and Hippolyte Fauche’s 1864 translation of the Ramayana was in Redon’s library.[36]  He almost certainly read Schuré’s “Le Bouddha et sa légende” in the Revue des deux mondes (1886).[37]  Two other books in his library were Paul Carus’s L’Evangile de Bouddha (The Gospel of Buddha; Chicago, 1895), an anthology of ancient sources on Buddha’s life that are compared to the Gospels; and the eccentric Buddha, A Drama in Twelve Scenes (New York, 1897) by Sadakichi Hartmann.  Among Redon’s many works that have an overt Eastern bent are: The Little Abbot Reading the Ramayana (1883) and Sita (c. 1893).  A slightly later work, Buddha in His Youth (1904), depicts the young Buddha in profile, sitting beneath a tree and surrounded by a cloud of imaginary flowers. (Figure 3)

Redon came into contact with the Nabis around 1890 through his friend the writer André Mellerio who knew the group’s most outspoken theorist, Maurice Denis.  The elder Redon’s significance to the younger generation of Symbolist artists is memorialized in an homage published in La Vie in 1912.  Among the various authors is Pierre Bonnard, who recognized Redon’s affability and his eagerness to provide encouragement and advice: “The man is full of kindness and understanding.  All of our generation fell under his charm and received his advice.”[38]  And when in March 1898, Maurice Denis declared his intention to “make a painting of Redon in Vollard’s gallery surrounded by Vuillard, Bonnard, etc.,” it was as a visual record of the younger generation’s veneration for the master.[39]

Redon’s and Gauguin’s fascination with Asian religions certainly did not go unnoticed by the younger generation.  Of the Nabis, Paul Ranson probably produced the most visible sign of this interest in Eastern religions in his work Christ and Buddha of about 1890. (Figure 4)  This work is a curious blending of Eastern and Western religious traditions, which was a concern of the many occult authors then becoming popular.  Taking their cue from the mystical thinkers of the Romantic period, the late nineteenth-century occultists sought to discover the seed idea that gave rise to the various religious and philosophic traditions of the world.  The overwhelming popularity of their ideas stimulated a great amount of interest in Asia, its religions and its thought.

More than likely it was through Redon that the Nabis came to know and perhaps even meet occult writer Edouard Schuré,[40] whose best-known work, Les Grandes Initiates, was first published in France in 1889.  Its tremendous popularity—after a slow start, it quickly became a best-seller—was due to its syncretic view of religion in which Plato, Christ, Krishna and others, were celebrated as prophets of a single truth.  Schuré’s ideas resonated with other mystical writers revered among the Symbolists.  Thomas Carlyle in Sartor Resartus claimed, “the universe is but one vast symbol of God.”[41]  Another was Eliphas Levi who in Fable et Symbole declared that “all the universe is but one sublime temple,”[42] and Schopenhauer who wrote that “everything that is true in Christianity is also found in Brahmanism and Buddhism.”[43]  Interestingly, this old Romantic belief in a cosmic unity is decidedly Far-Eastern and finds its ultimate source in the teachings of Taoism and Zen Buddhism.  The patriarch Keiznan remarked: “In reality there is no distinction between forms and colors, no opposition of object and subject, only one and the same eternity.”[44]

Bonnard’s Aesthetic of the Absolute

The paintings most indicative of Bonnard’s early work that begin to demonstrate a thematic and stylistic consistency are his figured landscapes, such as Le Peignoir, ca.1890 (Figure 5), Crépuscule, 1892 (Figure 6) and the many interior genre scenes—the so-called intimiste works—such as Intimité from 1891 (Figure 7).  Whether paintings of interiors or exteriors, or both, stylistically what characterizes his work from this period onward is a much greater tendency towards abstraction.  Bonnard takes attention away from the figures and objects and makes them part of the overall atmosphere of a room or garden.  In many of his works the colored areas within the flattened picture plane lose their relation to the objects depicted.  Things and people meld passively into their surroundings: a piece of fruit or dish becomes a part of the planar white surface of a tablecloth, and interiors and exteriors merge on the picture’s surface in a mélange of delicate colors.  His aim, it seems, is to draw the spectator into a painting and take them  on a contemplative journey, in which familiar objects and spaces undergo subtle transformations and assume new meanings.

In Le Peignoir, for instance, we see Bonnard’s drawing inspiration from Japanese kakemono[45] and prints and using the formal qualities inherent in Japanese art as a way to achieve these affects.  The pose of Bonnard’s young woman is traditionally one of a stylishly attired Japanese courtesan, casting an enticing glance over her retreating shoulder.  Bonnard shows the graceful figure from the back to exploit the curving line of her flowing form and her luxuriant crescent-patterned gown.  Like the Japanese, Bonnard used a tall, narrow format, varied patterns and textures and arabesques to create a lively, intimate, decorative surface.  These features in combination with the gauzy, shimmering silk ground (resembling the gold leaf used in Japanese screens), and the soft, muzzy touches of warm, muted color, unify and flatten the composition, evoking a penetrating quiet and mysterious stillness and communicating a paradoxical relationship between the figure and her environment.  What is at once recognizable as a woman clothed in an exotic gown becomes, at second glance, a wonderful cacophony of colors, shapes, patterns and undulating lines.  One’s perception ebbs and flows between two worlds, the recognizable world of observable phenomena and the contingent world of suggested forms and spaces.

The formal peculiarities that produce these fugitive perceptual effects can also be found in the artist’s later works, even in cases where Japanese influence is not so readily apparent.  For example, Bonnard’s The Provençal Jug painted in 1930 (Figure 8) presents the same kind of visual ambiguities and enigmatic relationship between the objects and their setting.  The freely painted, richly colored, earthenware jug at center with its wonderful spray of casually arranged flowers acts as the pivot around which one’s experience of the whole composition turns.  Focus on the jug and it develops shape, soft curving contours and fullness of form.  But if one’s eyes are trained on another area of the painting, the jug’s form and its contents dissolve and meld into the surface of the wall.  This is a trick of perception that Bonnard generates by manipulating the local color of the blond wall.  The carefully placed purple, orange, and green shadows that surround the jug and play across the wall’s surface blend and meld together the jug, flowers and wall surface when one’s eyes are directed elsewhere in the composition.  Shift attention to the left, and the jug with its vibrant flora, now within visual periphery, breaks down and loses its structure while a creamy white bowl, sitting on a shallow ledge at the bottom left, coalesces into view, solidifying and asserting its physicality.  Gaze to the far right of the canvas, and an arm and hand–not easily perceived when not looking directly at them–come into focus while the forms and space at the left appear as a flat surface bathed in patches of luminous color.[46]  In a masterful display of perceptual machination, Bonnard allows the viewer to see different objects as distinct things that occupy space, but at the same time, he presents them in such as way that they lose their individuality and physicality to become subsumed into a generalized, abstracted network of color, line and shape.

Experientially both Le Peignoir and The Provençal Jug manifest a reality characterized by a dynamic interaction between states of being and non-being, presence and absence, unity and multiplicity.  This perception of reality as a state of constant fluctuation informs much of Bonnard’s oeuvre and has left many critics both delighted and puzzled.  One of the first critics to comment on this aspect of Bonnard’s pictures was John Berger.  In a discussion of Indolence (Figure 9), one of Bonnard’s early masterpieces, Berger asks his reader to:

Continue to look at the picture and the woman begins to disappear—or at least her presence becomes ambiguous.  The shadow down her near side and flank becomes almost indistinguishable from the cast shadow on the bed.  The light falling on her stomach and far leg marries them to the golden-lit bed.  The shadows which reveal the form of a calf pressed against a thigh, of her sex as it curves down and round to become the separation between her buttocks, of an arm thrown across her breasts—these eddy and flow in exactly the same rhythm as the folds of the sheet and counterpane.…

The picture, remaining a fairly conventional one, does not actually belie its title: the woman continues to exist.  But it is easy to see how the painting is pulling towards a very different image: the image of the imprint of a woman on an empty bed.”[47]

In her analysis of a much later work by the artist, The Table from 1925 (Figure 10), Sarah Whitfield also notices this interplay between presence and absence.

…the white space of the tablecloth…is laid with plates and dishes of fruit, but some of these objects, like the four white plates, and the half-empty bottle placed at the centre of the composition, as well as the grey-blue seeping patches of shadow, are spaces that fill the emptiness of the table, but which by being left unfilled themselves reinforce a perception of absence.[48]

Charles Sterling opines that:

Bonnard’s mode of seeing differs from that of the Impressionists.  It unites with a ubiquitous light the Symbolists’ expressive and arbitrary color…color so despotic that every object appears as a colored patch before allowing of recognition in its customary aspect.[49]

And in his assessment of Bonnard’s oeuvre, Stanley Meiser concludes:

…the more one looks at them [Bonnard’s paintings], the more odd things begin to happen.  Bonnard created a new kind of narrative.  If you spend time in front of a Bonnard painting and watch, objects come in and out of focus.  It is as if everything in the world is elusive.[50]

Bonnard’s commitment to these themes in his art can even be found in his working methods.  At the end of his life, when he was living alone at Le Cannet, Bonnard accepted Maillol’s “loan” of his model Dina Vierny.  When she arrived he asked her not to pose but to move around the studio: “He didn’t want me to keep still.  What he needed was movement: he asked me to ‘live’ in front of him and try to forget him.”  And she added, “He wanted both presence and absence.”[51]

The reason for this ambiguity in Bonnard’s work is that a Bonnard painting is not simply a depiction of a new way of seeing, as was proposed by Jean Clair and John Elderfield, it is, rather, the visual articulation of a metaphysical state.[52]  Bonnard’s art embodies a Buddhist conception of reality as opposed to a Western, rationalized conception of reality.  In general, Western philosophy originates and perpetuates itself in a world of duality, in the subjectivity of an individual’s mind judging the empirical world.  As Masao Abe explains, reason, in Western thought, always refers to human reason.  In Buddhism, reason refers to Truth outside of human reason, it just is, it is true thusness, the dharma nature or universal truth.[53]  According to Buddhist thought, this empirical duality of subjectivity and objectivity obscures awareness of a true reality that lies outside both.  Zen reality takes into account the inseparableness of being and non-being.[54]  In Zen, being and non-being mutually and perpetually contradict themselves, and through this mutual and perpetual contradiction one attains an absolute actuality, understood as a continuum, that exists within this perpetual play.[55]

Bonnard sought to capture the immanence of this universal essence taught in Zen, an essence that was understood in the late nineteenth century as fundamental in Japanese art.  For example, in his article for Artistic Japan entitled “The Poetic Tradition in Japanese Art” Justus Brinckmann observed that:

the poetic transports of the Japanese express something more than the mere physical enjoyment caused by the harmony of the outlines of a landscape or the splendour of its colours.  With a complete forgetfulness of his own temperament, he suffers himself to be penetrated to the depths of his soul by the sad or the joyful note of the ambient air, ignoring, in his exaltation, that in the phenomena by which we—the spectators—are affected sentimentality holds no place.  He thinks not that at the bottom of all this there is no other thing than the eternal strife between that which is coming and that which passes away (my emphasis).  In fine, he forgets that we are but attributing our own feelings to nature, which is governed by inexorable laws.[56]

Indeed, meaning in a Bonnard work is derived in a manner analogous to Zen artistic works.  First of all, in Bonnard’s art and Zen art the spectator must participate in the work in order to derive (and intuit) understanding from the work.  Addiss writes:

The monk artist has merely begun a process that is reactivated when the painting is seen, leading to various levels of communication and understanding.  Because the viewer has a vital role in completing the work in his or her spirit, true Zenga embodies the actual experience (rather than the influence) of Zen.[57]

This requirement of participation on the part of the viewer was recognized by late nineteenth-century art critics as a fundamental quality of Japanese art.  Summarizing their views, Phylis Floyd wrote:

Since the Japanese artist did not pursue objective illusionism with the same conceptual systems that had dominated Western art since the Renaissance, he created his effects of realism through an interpretive transcription of key elements and depended on the spectator’s visual involvement to “fill in the rest.”  This quality prompted some critics to remark that the results were more real in that they were interactive, inviting the spectator’s visual participation.  The salient features of the subject were presented by the Oriental artist in such a way that the spectator’s imagination was stimulated, thus bringing the work of art to life.[58]

Secondly, the Zen artist, like the Symbolist artist or poet, realizes the falseness of images and words that lead us into narrow objective/subjective modes of thought.  The Zen artist and Symbolist also realizes, however, that he must use these very same words and images in order to erode this empirical mode of perceiving reality.  The Zen scholar Izutsu explains that:

non-commotion of the absolute dimension of Reality (the eternal present) is actualized precisely through the commotion of the phenomenal dimension (the time-space) of this same Reality.[59]

There is a constant tension between this eternal and this time-space, and this dynamism must be shown in works of Zen art in order for the individual to grasp absolute reality.  From Izutsu:

Only through the process of activating the linguistic function of articulation which then, immediately turns into non-articulation, can a passing glimpse be afforded into the real structure of Reality.[60]

Bonnard too recognized the problem of reconciling the tension between the Absolute and the empirically understood world.  When Angele Lamotte asked Bonnard if he ever painted with his subject in front of him, he replied: “Oh, yes, but I leave it and come back to it later.  I never let myself become absorbed in the reality…In fact there is always some conflict between the initial concept, which is the right one, the painter’s own, and the varied and ever variable world…”[61]

Zen artists, as does Bonnard, do not seek to fill their compositions with a full representation of a seen reality; rather, they attempt to fill it with Absolute Reality.  This is an ideal that Zen artists try to attain and communicate through “non-expression.”  From Izutsu:

The principal [of non-expression] stems from the awareness of the expressiveness of non-expression, that is to say, the expressive absence of expression.  It applies to almost all forms of art that are considered most characteristic of Far-Eastern culture.  In the case of the pictorial art the principal of non-expression is illustrated in a typical form by black-and-white ink drawings done by a few brush strokes or some light touches of ink on a white ground, the serenity of the white space being in many cases even more expressive than the exquisitely expressive lines and glistening ink.  The “absence of brush and ink” is in this sense nothing but an unattainable ideal for those painters who want to actualize the principal expression through non-expression.  However, one can at least come closer and closer to the absolute absence of expression in proportion to the ever-increasing inner accumulation of spiritual energy.[62]

Like a Zen artist, Bonnard knows how to make a virtue of emptiness, how to keep a great expanse of the picture surface intensely meaningful without any resort to picture-filling incident.  He recognized the power of “non-expression” and often created images that constantly tend towards the void.  “Pour commencer un tableau,” Bonnard said, “il faut toujours qu’il y ait un vide au milieu.”[63]  This emptiness or void can be seen in many of his works whether it is an empty street, an open window, a mirror, or the blank expanse of a white bed sheet or tablecloth.

Bonnard’s art is often compared to the poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé who, like Bonnard, was deeply influenced by Zen aesthetics.[64]  Indeed, Mallarmé’s quest to use language in pursuit of the Absolute was a theme Bonnard understood as the principle thrust of Mallarmé’s poetry and one that he too longed to embody in his own work.  On September 1, 1940, Bonnard wrote in his diary: “Mallarmé.  Searching for the absolute.”  A little more than two months later on November 6, 1940, he closed a letter to Matisse with “My work is not going too badly, and I dream of seeking the absolute.”[65]

The relationship between poet and painter can be found in the latter’s Intimité, a significant work from 1891 (see Figure 7).  The setting for this small oil on canvas is probably the Villa Bach, Arcachon, the house where the Terrasses were living, and where Bonnard visited them in April 1891.  Here Bonnard depicted his sister Andrée in silhouette smoking a cigarette and his brother-in-law, Claude Terrasse, spot lit in the background with a pipe dangling from his lips.  Looming abruptly in the foreground is the artist’s hand holding a smoldering pipe.  In his placement of the hand immediately in the foreground, Bonnard mimicked a perspective device common in Hiroshige’s prints where it is used to achieve a striking silhouette and to collapse and flatten space. (Figure 11)

Arabesques of smoke emerge from the bottom edge of the painting and curl upward in lazy spirals.  Long trails of swirling smoke combine, mingle and confuse with the busily patterned wallpaper.  Through color and the arabesque, all elements are brought into unity on the surface as foreground and background merge fusing the three figures in a mutual closeness.

This painting, as Giambruni suggests,[66] is likely based on Mallarmé’s poem Toute l’âme résumée, where he uses the images of smoke and fire to signal the importance of evocation and the contingent nature of reality (see A. S. Kline’s translation All Summarised The Soul here; the French version can be found here).  As in the poem, the smoke in Bonnard’s painting metaphorically and experientially communicates the paradoxical linkage of being and non-being, the atemporal to the temporal, the singular to the plural, thus becoming a pictorial equivalent of the Absolute.  In addition, the universality and constancy of the Absolute is invoked in both the painting and the poem by the image of the ring.[67]  Bonnard subtly incorporates the ring motif into his painting in the wallpaper pattern, which is comprised of interlocked, undulating circles that compliment the fugitive wisps of smoke.

The circle or ring was a principle motif in Zen calligraphy, examples of which Bonnard could have readily seen.  These Zen circles, called ensō, are used by Zen calligraphers to symbolize the nature of the Absolute—empty yet full, infinite, luminous, complete.[68]  Often these simple yet vigorous drawings of circles are accompanied by common Zen sayings meant to provide some insight into the nature of the Absolute.

The Zen themes identified in Le Peignoir and Intimité are also present in Bonnard’s first large-scale and ambitious multi-figured masterpiece, Crépuscule (see Figure 6).  The painting is signed and dated: “Bonnard 1892.”  It was completed before March of that year in time to be shown at the Salon des Indépendants.  The subject is of a scene at the garden at Le Clos.  Here Bonnard’s father in a deer-stalker hat, his sister Andrée (the central figure in the light green and white dress), her husband Claude Terrasse, and a woman who may be Bonnard’s cousin Berthe Schaedlin, enjoy a game of croquet amidst the lush greenery and rich foliage of the garden.  Accompanying them in the garden is a brown and white, spotted dog who prepares to give chase to the ball Andrée is about to strike.  In the background at the extreme right, beneath golden patches of sky bursting forth through the prevailing greens and browns of the surrounding wood, are five, waif-like figures joined together in a circle and engaged in a dance.

In this work Bonnard painted a rich decorative patchwork of patterns, colors, shapes and lines.  As in other canvases from this period, Crépuscule elicits a sense of hypnotic oscillation: with prolonged study the eye and mind coalesce, recognize and hold onto a form only to lose it again as it melds back into its surroundings becoming an integral part of the composition’s overall abstract matrix of color, line and pattern.  At first one senses a distinction between foreground and background, between figure and ground, only to lose sight of that delineation as they merge, and one’s eye is brought back to dance effortlessly along the surface.  “The picture,” Bonnard said to E. Tériade in 1942, “is a series of blotches which are joined together and finally form the object, the finished piece, over which the eye may wander completely unhindered.”[69]

As in Intimité, the luxuriant textures, moody colors, and merging of all the forms together through pattern, color, and line, educe a highly poetic quality, one that has not gone undetected by other scholars.  Ursula Perucchi-Petry, for instance, proposed a rather convincing connection between this painting and an “image” from one of Paul Verlaine’s proto-Symbolist poems: Nuit du Walpurgis classique (see here for the poem in the original French).[70]  Both the painting and the poem communicate a sense of a fluid dynamic between opposites: presence/absence, unity/multiplicity, and being/non-being.  The moment of twilight, the theme of the picture, reinforces this perception since we are placed in time on the threshold between the brightness of day and the darkness of night.  Again, in both the painting and the poem, the universality and constancy of this theme is invoked by the image of the ring.

What is perhaps most intriguing about Crépuscule is that Bonnard built the varied elements of the composition on a geometric armature based upon the structure of a four-paneled screen.  In fact, vestiges of the polyptych form are detectable in the painting’s schematic composition where the studied placement of figures, their contours, and swaths of color define barely detectable vertical divisions.  A related sketch, which is separated into four vertical sections like a screen, is for a composition of figures in a garden (members of his family) and seems to be an intermediate stage between Femmes au jardin and Crépuscule, which he began shortly afterwards.  The properties of the screen as a unified form comprised of individual panels that are linked formally and thematically was perhaps used by Bonnard as a possible metaphor for the Zen theme of the interplay between unity and multiplicity, expressed, as noted above, in other ways in the painting.

Although it is well known that Japanese prints made their mark on Western artistic practice in the second half of the nineteenth century, considerably less is known about the influence of Japanese screens, which were quite popular beginning 1860 in Europe, and a little later in North America.  Of all the nineteenth-century artists who dabbled in screen making—such as Corot, Daubigny, Cézanne, Mucha, Whistler, Morris and Mackmurdo—none were so prolific and inventive with the form as the Nabis.

The decorative and minor arts and non-traditional forms, like the screen, greatly appealed to Bonnard and the Nabis.  Interested in the art reform movements that had been sweeping Europe and America since the mid-nineteenth century, the Nabis wished to embrace all forms of art-making in order to distance themselves from traditional easel painting, to collapse the distinction between the “low” and “high” forms of art, and to integrate art more fully into everyday life.  One of the Nabis’ spokesmen, Jan Verkade, recalled that his friends demanded, “Away with easel pictures!  Away with that unnecessary piece of furniture!  No more perspective!  The wall must remain a plain surface, and must not be broken by the presentation of limitless horizons.  There are no paintings, but only decorations.”[71]  Screens, sitting tenuously on the borders between painting, sculpture, and decoration in an art form designed literally to shape architectural space, ideally suited the Nabis’ aspiration to bring art into life and to unify the arts.  Bonnard recalled much later in his life: “our generation always sought to link art with life.  At that time [the 1890s] I personally envisaged a popular art that was of everyday application: engravings, fans, furniture, screens….”[72]

Among the Nabis, Bonnard was the first to create a Japanese-inspired folding screen.  He also made more of them than any of his friends.  Between 1889 and 1919, Bonnard attempted at least nine screens, and extant sketches show that he considered others.[73]  Not only do folding screens figure prominently as elements in his paintings, but also the distinct formal qualities of the Japanese-styled screen manifest themselves in many ways in Bonnard’s oeuvre.  For example, the screen form was probably the basis for his many diptych and triptych decorative projects such as Views of Paris (1896), Le Moulin Rouge (1896), Races at Longschamps (1897) and La Place Clichy (1900).  For Bonnard the screen was much more than a mere domestic article, a functional object with which to partition a large room or studio into more intimate, usable sections.  It afforded possibilities of new creative activity in direct relation to its functional design.  This opportunity to experiment with space and time on a flat surface that could yet be moved—its individual folds seen in isolation, or hinged away or towards each other as desired—introduced a new element into his art, both as a subject and as a support for painting.  In fact, it would not be an overstatement to claim that Bonnard’s encounter with the Japanese-styled screen contributed the most distinctive facet to the development of his style.

Between 1898 and 1902 Bonnard worked on three paintings and a large screen that are related by their iconography.  The first two, Indolence (1898/99) and Siesta (1900), which are traditional easel paintings, appear to have been conceived as pendants (Figures 9 and 12 respectively).  Although also an easel painting, Man and Woman, painted in 1900, is particularly compelling because a screen takes a central role in the composition. (Figure 13)  Screen with Rabbits (1902-1906) is significant not only because it is the largest of Bonnard’s screens but also because it was one of the last of his numerous experiments with screen making. (Figure 14)  Even though only the last two works are screen-related, our understanding of these works as well as the first two will only be enhanced if we look at them as a group.

In Indolence, we are offered a glimpse into the intimate setting of the couple’s bedroom.  Marthe, the artist’s lover (they married in 1925) and a favorite model, is shown nude, lying back on her bed in a provocative pose; The blatant erotic character of this work was perhaps inspired by Japanese shunga prints, which typically show lovers engaged in a variety of sexually explicit acts and, which, on a philosophical level, are concerned with fundamental relationships between men and women.[74]  Like the courtesan in Manet’s Olympia, Marthe engages the viewer directly, only here her expression, obscured by heavy shadows around her face, is indiscernible.  Bonnard arches and twists Marthe’s back to pull her face and chest toward the viewer and into the shadow.  To prevent her from tumbling off the bed and into the foreground, he turns her exposed midriff and left leg to the empty side of the light-filled bed.  This subtle helixical treatment of her pose creates rhythmical arabesques that work in concert with the warm, golden light and deep shadows to both delineate her from and suffuse her into her surroundings.  The bright light entering from the top right marries the soft, supple contours of her left side to the bed while strong chiaroscuro and a vigorous contour line describing her right side bring out the fullness of her left leg and the curve of her back.  As John Berger noted, this painting experientially relates two very different simultaneous perceptions: the woman’s presence as well as her absence.  This is Zen dynamism. [75]

In Siesta (1900), Bonnard offers the same kind of experiential ambiguity that is meant to invoke in the viewer a sense of the Absolute.  What is more intriguing is that the theme of opposing dualities is communicated here in other ways and is best understood, in part, if we consider this work as a pendant to Indolence.  Again we are invited into the private domain of the painter’s bedroom to spy on Marthe.  Again she lies there nude, but this time we catch her sleeping, facedown on the bed, her head partially buried in pillows.  Neither Marthe nor a dog asleep at the side of the bed is disturbed or even aware of our gaze.  Ostensibly Marthe is in a state of post-coital exhaustion: small piles of clothes lie rumpled on the floor, the sheets and blankets are casually tossed aside, and Bonnard’s side of the bed is vacant, his pillow pushed up against the wall.  As was noted above, the Marthe depicted in Indolence is very different from the Marthe in Siesta.  They are opposites in every respect: awake-asleep, active-inert, aroused-spent, pronated-supine.  Alone and when seen together these works embody Zen ontology, a play of opposites.

This dialectic is carried through Siesta in yet one more way.  Intriguingly, Bonnard borrowed the pose of Marthe from a classical sculpture, in particular the famous marble of the sleeping hermaphrodite located in the Louvre.[76] (Figure 15)  The legend of the hermaphrodite comes from a Hellenistic myth of Asiatic origin that tells of a being who was half male, half female, the offspring of Hermes and Aphrodite (hence his name).  As a young man—he began life as a male—he once bathed in a lake where Salmacis, one of Diana’s nymphs, dwelt.  She fell in love with him at first sight and clung to him with such passion that their two bodies became united in one.  Clearly, Bonnard’s use of the hermaphrodite was meant to complement this work’s piquant eroticism as well as his Zen theme of a unity of opposites—here male-female.

Around the same time that Bonnard created Siesta he also painted Man and Woman.  Unlike Siesta and Indolence, the screen form is formally and thematically significant in this work.  Vertically oriented directly in the center of the composition is a folding screen on which the entire composition is hinged.  In the right foreground, standing naked in the shadows of the boudoir is Bonnard.  In the background to the left, lounging on the bed in partial light is Marthe, playing with two kittens.

The painting’s rather diagrammatic composition give it an emblematic quality and mark the work as bearing a loaded weight of meaning that transcends any biographical content.  Again, it appears that Bonnard is concerned with communicating the fundamental nature of the Zen absolute as a play of opposites.  This dynamism is manifested in a number of ways in this painting: male and female, hard and soft, active and passive, left and right, foreground and background, standing and sitting, light and dark.  The screen, itself a literal and symbolic harmony between unity and multiplicity, is the node upon which this tension oscillates.  It is the metaphorical Absolute.  Occupying that place in-between, it is neither one nor the other but related to both at the same time.  It stands at the union of opposites; it is the “and” between dualities.

In the Far East, the dynamic play between opposites is most succinctly represented in the ancient Chinese formulation of the Yin-Yang, which is both the separation of all things into opposing principles, expressed most commonly as male-female, positive-negative, hard-soft, active-passive, black-white, as well as their unification.  This Taoist principle, fundamental to Zen, and its symbolic expression (Figure 16) was not only known to Bonnard’s circle but was viewed by its members as common in Chinese and Japanese art.  Edmond de Goncourt, in his popular book La Maison d’un artiste, describes an image on the lid of a small Japanese vase in his collection that tells of the original meeting of the two principles:

The open-work lid is surmounted by a cube on which is represented the union of the Ing, the male principle and of the Yang, the female principle.  [Goncourt has them backward]….This meeting of the male and female principle, which often decorates ancient objects, in the form of a tadpole in a circle, is also often found in a näive legend of the Far East: the male essence walked on the left side, and the female essence followed on the right side.  They met at the column of the Empire, and having recognized each other, the female spirit sang these words: “I am delighted to meet such a handsome young man.”  The male answered in an angry tone: “I am a man.  Thus it is right that I speak first: How dare you begin, you, a woman?”  They separated and went on their way.  Meeting again where they had separated, the male spirit intoned first these words: “I am happy to find a young and pretty woman.”[77]

Eventually, after more of this kind of diplomatic give-and-take, the mating occurs.

Interestingly, George Mauner has shown that Goncourt’s anecdote was the inspiration behind a lithograph by Manet, Le Rendezvous des chats (1868).  Manet’s lithograph (Figure 17) served as an illustration and advertising poster for Champfleury’s highly successful book, Les Chats, published in 1869.  Manet’s print illustrates a passage in the book that describes the mating habits of cats.  Mauner found Champfleury’s text to be strikingly akin to Goncourt’s description of the Yin-Yang principle:

The male and female cat stay at a certain distance from each other.  They watch each other’s least gesture and exchange green-eyed glances….

Both slowly crawl low on the ground and approach one another: but as soon as the tomcat approaches the female, she takes convoluted flight….  They stop again, look ardently at each other until the female springs on the male.[78]

On the relationship between Manet’s lithograph and its likely textual sources, Mauner writes:

Manet’s picture is, if anything, closer to Goncourt’s description of the Yang-Yin principles than to Champfleury’s mating cats.  The black and white animals, each on its own side, cautiously stalk each other and, producing a circular movement, emerge as an extraordinary vivification of the ancient oriental emblem.  In this context, the great chimney pot at the center, placed before a bright area, assumes a new importance.  The head of the black cat and the tail of the white one cross over this central divider, so that the latter is directly above the former.  Is this the “colonne de l’Empire” mentioned in the legend—the symbol of an original unity?[79]

What is uncanny is that Manet’s print is remarkably similar in theme and composition to Bonnard’s Man and Woman.  Bonnard’s painting has similar schematic qualities except that he and Marthe take the place of Manet’s cats—although Marthe is shown playing with two cats—and the chimney pot becomes a screen in Bonnard’s version.  It is impossible, of course, to say whether Bonnard knew of or understood Manet’s inventive treatment of the Yin-Yang principle for his lithograph or that Bonnard based his painting on this print.  What is certain, however, is that both artists knew of the Taoist Yin-Yang principle and simply came up with remarkably similar but separately conceived ways of dealing with it in pictorial form.[80]

In Screen with Rabbits we see Bonnard again dealing with the themes of the male-female, unity-multiplicity dualities.  This large, six-panel screen (actually a pair of three-paneled folding screens) was never exhibited during Bonnard’s life, and it remained with his family after his death.  The panels are divided horizontally into two separate areas: the lower two-thirds of the work features frisky rabbits (paired off in five of the six panels), while the upper third depicts vignettes of cavorting satyrs, or fauns, and nymphs (two of the scenes show them copulating), interspersed with glimpses of country houses and snowy landscapes seen through deep indigo, cloud-like formations.[81]  Stylistically, Bonnard was careful to follow the Japanese example and fully unifies the panels both in theme and composition.

Like Man and Woman, the obvious theme of this screen is the dualism and unification of male and female principles lightheartedly symbolized by fecund rabbits and reflected by the sexual activity of their human counterparts above.  As in the West, rabbits were popular motifs in Japanese art (as both trickster and symbols of fecundity) and were especially favored by Masayoshi and Hokusai, whose drawings Bonnard would have seen in Artistic Japan.  That we see a conflation of Eastern and Western notions here (and in Siesta) is evidence of his (and the Symbolists’) belief in the universality of the Absolute, an Absolute that is not culture bound.  Again, the ultimate unity of these principle dualities in the realm of the Absolute is carried through in the screen form itself, which is, as noted previously, literally an object that is a unity of multiplicities.

In a great deal of the paintings Bonnard produced after 1900, he regularly organized space in a sequence of vertically oriented, rectangular divisions, which he then flattened out across the surface and unified with color.  This formal feature, a leitmotif of Bonnard’s style, is what Patrick Heron likened to “a piece of large-scale fish-net drawn over the surface of the canvas…an imaginary structure of loose, connected squares—sometimes pulled into oblongs and sometimes into diamond shapes.”  This “invisible skeleton of rectilinear surface design,” Heron believes “is the abstract basis of all of Bonnard’s compositions.”[82]  This hallmark formal element found throughout Bonnard’s oeuvre was no doubt the result of his experiments with screen making.  To this he marries his unique way of manipulating the viewer’s perception of objects and spaces through color relationships, varied brushwork and patterning. (Figures 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28)  Bonnard’s thoughtful study of Far-Eastern aesthetic principles and philosophic notions, then, resulted in his quest to articulate the Absolute, a state of flux between presence and absence, being and non-being.  It is the recurrent theme, an idée fixe, informing much of his work and one that he constantly sought to find inventive means of communicating.

About the author

David E. Gliem earned his M.A. and Ph.D. from The Pennsylvania State University, and is Assistant Professor of Art History at Eckerd College.  His research interests vary, having published on Bonnard’s posters, contemporary art, and the rhetorical use of text and image on Barack Obama’s campaign website from 2007-08.  He is currently working on a project on the modern religious prints of Robert O. Hodgell. Contact him here.


* Please see “OIA Statement on image use in articles” (click here) for more information.


[1] See David E. Gliem, “Japonisme and Bonnard’s Invention of the Modern Poster,” Japan Studies Association Journal 6 (2008): 17-38.

[2] See Georges Duthuit, Chinese Mysticism and Modern Painting (Paris: Chroniques du Jour, 1936); and Alexander Liberman, The Artist in His Studio (New York: Viking Press, 1960), especially pp. 38.

[3] Although Japonisme scholars acknowledge the availability of information about Asian thought some discount its influence on nineteenth-century artists: see Klaus Berger, Japonisme in Western Painting from Whistler to Matisse, Translated by David Britt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), especially pp. 4-5; originally published as Japonismus in der westlichen Malerei, 1860-1920 (Munich: Prestel Verlag, 1980); David Clarke, The Influence of Oriental Thought on Postwar American Painting and Sculpture (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1988); and Helen Westgeest, Zen in the Fifties: Interaction in Art between East and West (Zwolle: Waanders Uitgevers, 1996).  Other scholars have found evidence that Western artists did make use of Asian ideas in their work: see Jacques Dufwa, Winds from the East: A Study in the Art of Manet, Degas, Monet and Whistler, 1856-86 (New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1981); George Mauner, Manet, Peintre-Philosophe: A Study of the Painter’s Themes (University Park and London: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1975), 180-184; and Henry Adams, “Review Article: New Books on Japonisme,” The Art Bulletin 65:3 (September 1983): 495-502.

[4] The literature on the exchange of ideas between East and West is considerable.  See for example S. Radhakrishnan, Eastern Religions and Western Thought (London: Oxford University Press, 1939); K. M. Panikkar, Asia and Western Dominance: A Survey of the Vasco Da Gama Epoch of Asian History, 1498-1945 (London: George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., 1953); Brooks Wright, Interpreter of Buddhism to the West: Sir Edwin Arnold (New York: Bookman Associates, Inc., 1957); Guy Richard Welbon, The Buddhist Nirvana and Its Western Interpreters (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1968); Michael Edwardes, East-West Passage: The Travel of Ideas, Arts and Inventions between Asia and the Western World (New York: Taplinger Publishing, 1971); Carl T. Jackson, The Oriental Religions and American Thought: Nineteenth-Century Explorations (Connecticut and London: Greenwood Press, 1981); Bernard Frank, “L’intérêt pour les religions japonaises dans la France du XIXe siècle et les collections d’Emile Guimet,” L’Age du Japonisme: La France et le Japon dans la deuxième moitie du XIXe siècle (Société Franco-Japonaise d’Art et d’Archéologie, 1983), 1-18 (revised and published for the series, Collège de France, Essais et Conférences by the Presses Universitaires de France, 1986); Raymond Schwab, The Oriental Renaissance: Europe’s Rediscovery of India and the East, 1680-1880, Translated by Gene Patterson-Black and Victor Reinking (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984); Philip C. Almond, The British Discovery of Buddhism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988); Stephen Batchelor, The Awakening of the West: The Encounter of Buddhism and Western Culture (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1994); and Donald S. Lopez, Jr. (ed.)., Curators of the Buddha: The Study of Buddhism under Colonialism (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1995).

[5] There are many excellent texts that discuss Burnouf’s biography and academic accomplishments and offer critical readings of his ideas and influence.  See Guy Richard Welbon, particularly pages 51-100; Raymond Schwab; and Stephen Batchelor, particularly pages 227-249.

[6] Stephen Batchelor, 240.

[7] Stephen Batchelor, 242.

[8] One of the most successful and popular of these publications was Sir Edwin Arnold’s poem The Light of Asia which, according to Carl Jackson, “burst upon the public like a bombshell….”  All told it went through about sixty English and eighty American editions and it is estimated that between five hundred thousand and one million copies of the book were sold in Great Britain and the United States alone.  Translated into half a dozen different languages, “no work on Buddhism has ever approached its popular success”; Carl T. Jackson, 143.  For an excellent discussion of Sir Edwin Arnold, his Light of Asia and other works, see Brooks Wright.

[9] The best historical account of the opening of Japan to the West is still A. Walworth, Black Ships Off Japan: The Story of Commodore Perry’s Expedition (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1946).

[10] On Fenollosa and his relationship to Japan, see Brooks Van Wyck, Fenollosa and His Circle with Other Essays in Biography (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1962) and Lawrence Chisolm, Fenollosa: The Far East and American Culture (Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1963).

[11] Lowell was a prolific writer and produced an astonishing four sizeable books about Asian culture within the span of a single decade (1883-1893).  Lowell’s first book, Chöson: The Land of the Morning Calm.  A Sketch of Korea (Boston: Ticknor, 1886) was one of the first Western studies of Korean society.  This he wrote after a brief two months stay in Seoul on invitation of the King during the winter months of 1883-1884.  This book is an amazing effort given the limited amount of time he spent in the country and the fact that he knew only a few words of Korean.  After Korea he made a few short trips to Japan and managed to produce three books based upon his experiences there: The Soul of the Far East (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1888), Noto: An Unexplored Corner of Japan (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1891), and Occult Japan or The Way of the Gods.  An Esoteric Study of Japanese Personality and Possession (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1894).  In 1893 Lowell left Japan and closed his account with Asia; he seems to have never looked back.  An astronomy buff since childhood, he established an observatory at Flagstaff, Arizona; at his death he was a leading proponent of the theory that life had once flourished on the planet Mars.

[12] Bigelow went to Japan in 1882 and stayed until 1889.  Over those seven years, he amassed an impressive collection of Asian art including an incredible 26,000 swords that later became the core of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts holdings of Asian art.  He also became a devout Buddhist and studied with a Japanese priest for several years and even pondered entering the priesthood himself.  Despite his emphatic interest in Asian thought, Bigelow wrote very little on the topic.  One of his few contributions was an introduction for Chi Ki’s On the Method of Practicing Concentration and Contemplation, a work on Buddhist meditation.  See William S. Bigelow, “Prefatory Note,” Chi Ki, On the Method of Practicing Concentration and Contemplation, 111; this text was reprinted in the Harvard Theological Review 16 (April 1923): 109-41.

[13] Guimet moved much of the museum’s holdings to Paris but left a small library and a few art works at the location in Lyon.  The museum in Paris was built between 1885 and 1888.  It officially opened in 1889.

[14] To date very little scholarship exists that focuses on Guimet and his important museum.  One exception is Bernard Frank, “L’intérêst pour les religions japonaises dans la France du XIXe siècle et les collections d’Emile Guimet.”  Frank’s essay was expanded and published in 1986 as a book by the Presses Universitaires de France.  In the book Frank discusses the establishment in Paris of two other museums of Asian art: the Musée Cernushi and the Musée d’Ennery.  Like the Musée Guimet, these museums were founded in order to spread knowledge about Asian art and thought.  Henri Cernushi who traveled to the Far East with Théodore Duret organized the Musée Cernushi.  The Musée d’Ennery was named after Aldophe d’Ennery the husband of Clémence Desgranges whose collection of Asian art made up the museum’s holdings.  The Musée d’Ennery was eventually left in the care of the French government, which was obligated to maintain the museum without making changes, much like the Barnes collection in Philadelphia.  Remaining undisturbed and complete, the museum embodies the spirit and nature of collecting Far-Eastern art during the Belle Epoque.

[15] Guimet became intrigued by Eastern religions while on a business trip to Egypt in 1865.  From there he turned his attention almost entirely to Japan.

[16] Of the museum’s better-known scholarly publications were the Annales du musée Guimet (published from 1880 to 1935), and the Revue d’Histoire des Religions (published from 1880 to 1904).

[17] See Bernard Frank.

[18] David J. Bromfield, “The Art of Japan in Later Nineteenth Century Europe, Problems of Art Criticism and Theory,” Ph.D. dissertation (England: The University of Leeds, 1977), 333.

[19] David J. Bromfield, 343-344.

[20] For a discussion of Schopenhauer’s influence on the Symbolist writers and artists see Shehira Doss-Davezac, “Schopenhauer according to the Symbolists: The Philosophical Roots of Late Nineteenth-Century French Aesthetic Theory,” in Dale Jacquette (ed.), Schopenhauer, Philosophy, and the Arts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996): 249-276.

[21] “We made a singular mixture of Plotinus, of Edgar Poe, of Baudelaire and of Schopenhauer,” wrote Maurice Denis, Nabis painter and theorist of Symbolism, recounting some of the sources from which the young painters and poets of his generation in the 1880s and 1890s borrowed their ideas; Maurice Denis, Nouvelles Théories sur l’art moderne et sur l’art sacré, 1914-1921 (Paris: Rouart et Watelin, 1922), 171-72.  On the ties between Plotinus and Asian thought see, S. Radhakrishnan, 208-215.

[22] For a detailed look at the influence of this vast literature on the Symbolist movement see Filiz Eda Burhan, “Vision and Visionaries: Nineteenth Century Psychological Theory, the Occult Sciences and the Formation of the Symbolist Aesthetic in France,” Ph.D. dissertation (Princeton University, 1979).

[23] For a comprehensive, critical analysis of the relationships between Zen and Bergson see Minoru Yamaguchi, The Intuition of Zen and Bergson: Comparative Intellectual Approach to Zen.  Reason of Divergences between East and West (Tokyo: Herder Agency, 1969).

[24] On the influence of Zen on Mallarmé’s poetics, see Karyn Williamson,  “From Orientalism to Japonisme: Hugo, Baudelaire and Mallarmé,”  Ph.D. dissertation (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1994).

[25] According to Carl T. Jackson, the Theosophical Society, founded in New York City in 1875, “did a great deal to popularize Asian religions”; see 157-177.

[26] George Mauner, The Nabis: Their History and Their Art, 1888-1896 (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1978), 3.

[27] Antoine Terrasse, “Bonnard’s notes,” Sasha Newman (ed.), Bonnard (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1984), 69, 70.

[28] The most comprehensive study of the ideological implications of the relationship between the West and the East is Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1978).  Said followed this groundbreaking work with a more focused analysis of literature and orientalism in Culture and Imperialism (New York: Knopf, 1993).  The now classic art historical treatment of this topic is Linda Nochlin, “The Imaginary Orient,” in The Politics of Vision: Essays on Nineteenth-Century Art and Society (New York: Harper and Row, 1989), 33-59.  A recent book that examines the complicated nature of cross-cultural exchange is Mary D. Sheriff (ed.), Cultural Contact and the Making of European Art since the Age of Exploration (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010).  Japonisme can be viewed as an extension of Orientalism in that there were produced highly constructed, fanciful, sometimes derogatory, representations of Japan and its culture.  We see this particularly in popular prints and academic art after 1860.  Avant-garde artists, however, tended to be less political in their orientation toward Japan and sought instead to learn something of value from Japan rather than promulgate a negative, stereotypical view of its people and culture.  Perhaps an explanation for this is that, unlike China and the Near East, Japan was quick to emulate the West and was thus viewed as less of an Other.

[29] Eugène Morel, “Notes sur l’Evolution de l’art decorative,” Revue de l’Evolution sociale, scientifique, et littéraire 2:22 (1 January 1892): 22.

[30] Ary Renan, “Hokusai’s ‘Man-gwa’,” Artistic Japan, 2:8 (December 1888): 109.  The manga (literally indiscriminate picture) by Hokusai is a collection of informal drawings made into woodcuts published between 1814 and 1878 in 15 volumes.  These copybooks were used to train amateur artists and thus dealt with a broad range of subjects from everyday life to landscapes, flora and fauna, and the supernatural.  Western artists became fascinated with Hokusai’s manga beginning in the 1860s.  For more on Hokusai’s manga see Jocelyn Bouquillard and Christophe Marquet, Hokusai, First Manga Master (New York: Abrams, 2007).

[31] Ary Renan, “Hokusai’s ‘Man-gwa’,” Artistic Japan 2:9 (January 1889): 102.  The relationship between Japanese aesthetics and Symbolism is continually stressed throughout the pages of Artistic Japan.  In his article, Japanese Landscape Painters, Geffroy writes that “both painters and poets, are brief in the means they employ, most anxious to avoid saying too much, eager to catch the rapid and exact effect of the synthesis, and leave to the imagination the task of finishing some tract to be traversed” (pp. 411); in his description of Hokusai, Geffroy writes: “he is a realist in the sense that he paints scrupulously the landscapes which he has seen, effects which he has noted as they passed, but he always goes further, higher, and he never wearies of affirming the essence of things, the force of phenomena” (pp. 426-427); in his article, The Poetic Tradition in Japanese Art, Justus Brinckmann provides the Japanese poet Tsurayuki’s definition of poetry, a definition that speaks to Mallarmé’s own thoughts on the topic, “When we give expression to the sensations evoked in us by external perception, poetry is the result” (pp. 258).

[32] James Jackson Jarves, A Glimpse at the Art of Japan (New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1876), 45.

[33] Percival Lowell, The Soul of the Far East (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1888), 148-149.

[34] For a comprehensive discussion of this work please see Eric M. Zafran, “Searching for Nirvana,” Eric M. Zafran, ed., Gauguin’s Nirvana: Painters at Le Pouldu, 1889-90, 103-127.

[35] Daniel Guérin, ed., The Writings of a Savage: Paul Gauguin (New York: Viking Press, 1996), 41.

[36] Fred Leeman, “Redon’s Spiritualism and the Rise of Mysticism,” Odilon Redon: Prince of Dreams, 1840-1916 (Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1994), 229.

[37] Edouard Schuré, “Le Bouddha et sa légende,” Revue des deux mondes (1 July 1885): 589-622.

[38] Pierre Bonnard, “Homage à Odilon Redon,” La Vie 4 (1912).

[39] Maryanne Stevens, “The Transformation of the Symbolist Aesthetic,” Odilon Redon: Prince of Dreams, 1840-1916 (Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1994), 204.

[40] Redon and Schuré were neighbors on the rue d’Assa from March 1890 until the fall of 1892, when Schuré lived at number 90 and Redon at number 40.  Redon even owned a signed copy of Les Grandes Initiates in which Schuré wrote: “in a very sympathetique homage.”

[41] Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, Edited by Charles Howard (New York: The Odyssey Press, 1937), Bk. III, ch. 3.

[42] Eliphas Levi, “Sixieme Grand Symbole, le temple de l’avenir,” Fable et Symbole (Paris: de la Maisnie, 1862), 467.

[43] Arthur Schopenhauer, “On Religion,” Parerga and Paralipomena, Translated by E. F. J. Payne, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974), vol. 1, 381.

[44] Manfred Schneckenburger, “Zen Buddhism, Ink Painting, and Modern Art,” World Cultures and Modern Art (Munich: Bruckmann Publishers, 1972), 220.

[45] A kakemono is a painting or calligraphy made on paper or silk and mounted on a flexible backing so that it can be used as a wall hanging or rolled up for storage.

[46] Bonnard’s deliberate manipulation of the viewer’s perception of his paintings is thoroughly described in John Elderfield, “Seeing Bonnard,” Bonnard (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998), 33-52.

[47] John Berger, The Moment of Cubism and Other Essays (New York: Pantheon Books, 1969), 118-119.

[48] Sarah Whitfield, “Fragments of an Identical World,” Bonnard (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998), 14.

[49] André Ferminger, Pierre Bonnard (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1984), 14.

[50] Stanley Meiser, “Pierre Bonnard,” Smithsonian 4:29 (July 1998): 32-41.

[51] Annie Pérez, “Entretiens avec Dina Vierny,” Hommage à Bonnard (Bordeaux: Galerie des Beaux-Arts, Bordeaux, 1986): 136.

[52] Jean Clair, “’The Adventures of the Optic Nerve,’” Bonnard (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1984), 29-50; John Elderfield, “Seeing Bonnard,” 33-52.

[53] Masao Abe, Zen and Western Thought, Edited by William R. LaFleur (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1985), 103.

[54] Masao Abe, 108-109.

[55] Masao Abe, 100-110, 111.

[56] Justus Brinckmann, “The Poetic Tradition in Japanese Art,” Artistic Japan 19:4 (1889) 239.

[57] Stephen Addiss, The Art of Zen: Paintings and Calligraphy by Japanese Monks, 1600-1925 (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1989), 12.

[58] Phylis Anne Floyd, “Japonisme in Context: Documentation, Criticism, Aesthetic Reactions,” Ph.D. dissertation (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan, 1983), 215.

[59] Toshihiko Izutsu, Toward a Philosophy of Zen Buddhism (Tehran: Imperial Academy of Philosophy, 1977), 37.

[60] Toshihiko Izutsu, 115.

[61] Soby, Elliott and Wheeler, 18-19.

[62] Toshihiko Izutsu, 234-235.

[63] Bonnard, (Paris: Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, 1984), 32.

[64] Karyn Williamson, see especially pp. 142-144.

[65] Letter from Bonnard to Matisse dated November 6, 1940; see Bonnard/Matisse, Letters between Friends, Translated by Richard Howard (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1992), 73.

[66] Helen Giambruni, “Early Bonnard, 1885-1900,” Ph.D. dissertation (Berkeley: University of California, 1983), 222-223.

[67] For more discussion on the ring or circle motif in Nabis art, see George Mauner, The Nabis, 241-245.

[68] For more on the ensō, see Stephen Addiss, The Art of Zen: Paintings and Calligraphy by Japanese Monks, 1600-1925 (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1989).

[69] E. Tériade, (ed.), “Propos de Pierre Bonnard à Tériade (Le Cannet, 1942),” Verve 5:17-18 (August 1947): np.

[70] Ursula Perucchi-Petri, Die Nabis und Japan: Das Frühwerk von Bonnard, Vuillard und Denis, Studien zur Kunst des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts 37 (Munich: Prestel Verlag, 1976), 69.

[71] Willibrord Verkade, Yesterdays of an Artist-Monk, Translated by John L. Stoddard (New York: P. J. Kenedy & Sons, 1930), 88.

[72] Francis Bouvet, Bonnard: The Complete Graphic Work (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1981), 5-6.

[73] Ducks, Heron, and Pheasants, 1889, Marabout and Four Frogs, 1889, Femmes au jardin, 1890/91, Promenade, 1894 (distemper on canvas version), Promenade, 1895/96 (lithographed version), Street Scenes, ca. 1895, Ensemble champêtre, ca. 1894, Screen with Rabbits, ca. 1902 (pair of three-paneled folding screens), Au bord de l’eau, ca. 1919.

[74] See Timon Screech, Sex and the Floating World: Erotic Images in Japan, 1700-1820 (London: Reaktion Books, 1999).

[75] The term Zen dynamism is derived from the Kikan koan, a koan being a paradoxical statement used to train Buddhist monks to abandon their dependence on reason in order to achieve enlightenment.  According to Eido T. Shimano, “[k]ikan koan practice directs one’s attention to the commingling of the two aspects of life, oneness and manyness, thereby nurturing spontaneity and freedom”; see “Zen Koans,” in Kenneth Kraft (ed.), Zen, Tradition and Transition: A Sourcebook by Contemporary Zen Masters and Scholars (New York: Grove, 1988), 75.

[76] Sasha M. Newman, “Bonnard 1900-1920,” Bonnard (London: Thames and Hudson, 1984), 11.

[77] Edmond de Goncourt, La Maison d’un artiste, 2nd edition (Paris: G. Charpentier, 1881), vol. 2., 261.

[78] Jules Champfleury, Les Chats, 4th edition (Paris, 1870), 261; George Mauner, Manet, Peintre-Philosophe, 181.

[79] George Mauner, Manet, Peintre-Philosophe, 181.

[80] According to Mauner, Manet and his peers understood the Yin-Yang principle to be a common feature of Chinese and Japanese art; see Mauner, Manet, Peintre-Philosophe, 180-184.

[81] According to Michael Komanecky, Bonnard’s unusual treatment of the top third where he shows abbreviated landscapes through the clouds was borrowed from “Japanese pictorial motifs found in screens known to have been in Europe as early as the 1870s.”  Komanecky even attributes Bonnard’s use of a grayish-silver ground to the Japanese use of silver-leaf in screens available in the West around the turn of the century; see Michael Komanecky and Virginia Fabbri Butera, The Folding Image: Screens by Western Artists of the Nineteenth Century and Twentieth Centuries (New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 1984), 77.

[82] Patrick Heron, The Changing Forms of Art (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1955), 121.


Text copyright 2012 David E. Gliem

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