Emile Bernard, Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris and Kunsthalle, Bremen
Emile Bernard (1868-1941), Musée D’Orsay/Glammarion, $39
17 September 2014 – 5 January 2015
Bernard’s somewhat maverick status within the history of painting reduced his visibility on the international scene even within his lifetime. While many modernist artists began with conventional training only to break away from it once they got past their juvenilia, Bernard did something close to the opposite. In 1893, after an extremely promising early career at the epicentre of the art world, he left France, establishing himself in Egypt where he began to depict the locals in a Renaissance style that annulled all the tenets of post-impressionism.
Although he lived to see all the various forms of modernist art right up to the Second World War, he felt that post-impressionist experiments had become stale and repetitive and that the only way forwards was backwards to the Renaissance masters. The work he executed at this period is usually unknown for the simple reason that some of it disappeared but also because the work that survived has remained in less prestigious museums. The canvases owned by the Musée d’Orsay, for instance, tend to be only his more consensual modernist works.
An outline of Bernard’s early career in the last two decades of the nineteenth century reveals that he was at the heart of the post-impressionist adventure from the outset. In 1884, at the age of sixteen, he pursued his apprenticeship under the tutelage of the historical Orientalist painter Fernand Cormon whose studio enabled him to come into contact with young painters like Louis Anquetin and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. When Bernard was excluded two years later for bending the rules of naturalism, he went on a walking tour to Normandy and Brittany where he was introduced to Paul Gauguin. In the Breton village of Pont-Aven, the two painters became the federating principle behind the loose association of artists known as the Pont-Aven School. Out of this artist’s colony came such significant trends as Synthetism and Cloisonnism.
Both styles involved a simplification of shapes and the use of bold subjective colouring. Synthetism is a loosely-defined term which emphasized the synthesizing of the objective natural world with the artist’s feelings about it. Its practitioners departed from impressionism in their willingness to focus on the traces that nature left on the psyche. In other words, Synthetism is mostly about depicting the impact a scene has had on the artist once he has ceased to look at it. Cloisonnism is a more readily identifiable technique in which the artist outlines the various shapes in the painting with a dark contour. It comes as no surprise that this innovation led to an interest in creating stained-glass windows in the related Nabi group of artists.
One of the reasons behind Bernard’s break with his contemporaries is that he was angry at Gauguin’s ascendency within the post-impressionist group. While the two were initially close, he later accused Gauguin of hogging the limelight and claiming that he was the sole initiator of the experimental techniques that emerged from the group. A comparison between the chronology of paintings by both artists shows that it is likely that Bernard had an influence on Gauguin’s style rather than the other way round. Ultimately, it probably went both ways. The story of the origins of post-impressionism is similar in this respect to the origins of cubism: influenced by Cézanne, Georges Braque invented the cubist style but in the collective memory it is Picasso who remains associated as the defining member of the movement.
When all is said and done, most critics would probably argue that Gauguin is the greater artist. His audacious use of colour allows Gauguin to make apples look like undiscovered fruit and his ability to generate mystery and drama are unparalleled. Bernard’s work is more low-key and his palette is usually more muted by comparison.
Bernard was far more fervently religious than Gauguin. So fervid was he that he accused Gauguin of blasphemy and hypocrisy. The irony is that while Gauguin’s belief in God was rather thin on the ground, his religious paintings create a real sense of mystery whereas Bernard’s religious paintings seem less intense. Art critic Fred Leeman argues that this is due to Bernard’s sometimes differing intentions. Leeman contends that Bernard’s Le Pardon. Les Bretonnes dans la prairie was intended to show up the absence of real faith in the figures depicted. It would certainly explain why Gauguin’s La Vision après le sermon, also painted in the key artistic year of 1888, comes across as more spectacular. The gulf between the two painters is narrowed significantly, however, if you compare a reproduction of Bernard’s sadly no longer extant Christ au jardin des oliviers with Gauguin’s L’Agonie au jardin des oliviers, both painted the following year.
Truth to say, Bernard had such a diversity of styles that contemplating his oeuvre is like considering several wildly diverging painters taken from a selection of historical eras. There’s the painter of Nature morte à l’orange, a piece which depicts fruit and vegetables in pinks, purples and oranges with the sensual modulations one associates with Gauguin. This strand of his work confirms the idea that Bernard could effortlessly have become the Gauguin of the still life genre, had he chosen to remain in that niche. There’s the proto-fauvism of Bernard’s Chiffonniers – Clichy, the Cézannean Cafetière bleue et oranges sur une table verte, the proto-cubism of Moisson au bord de la mer à Saint-Briac. Nature morte décorative could have been painted by Henri Matisse ten years on. Yet another contrast is offered by Le marché aux cochons with its yellow pigs and red donkey anticipating the Blaue Reiter colouring of animals exemplified in the work of Franz Marc. While some of Bernard’s Neo-Renaissance work does not seem on a par with the great sixteenth-century masters which he so admired, his El Grecoesque 1912 self-portrait is as captivating as any mannerist portrait. Likewise, Armène Ohanian au tambourinpossesses the misty evocativeness of the best Symbolist paintings.
Nevertheless, Bernard’s most memorable paintings tend to predate his departure for Egypt. Madeleine au Bois d’Amour is a painting I first encountered in Venice in an exhibition on the impact of Puvis de Chavannes. It has stayed in my mind ever since and I am not likely to forget it. Without any of the derivativeness of his later styles, it exudes calmness, confidence and appeasing sensuality. A full-length portrait of the artist’s recumbent sister lying in the inspirational Wood of Love in Aven, it needs to be seen in a museum and loses a good deal of its force in reproduction. The perfect harmony of its composition and the gentle patterning of its colours transform it into a true marriage made in Aven: the wedding of nature and woman. Both Gauguin and Van Gogh were understandably impressed by this canvas.
A smaller painting that nevertheless always stands out in exhibitions is Les Baigneuses à la vache rouge. Wishing to emphasize Bernard as a satirist, Fred Leeman again suggests that the painting parodies Cézanne’s nudes. This does not quite tally with the fact that Bernard idolized Cézanne and one could just as easily say that Cézanne’s bathers look like less tightly controlled versions of Bernard’s bathers. The headless cow micturating at the back of Bernard’s painting is the touch that really brings the painting to life, making it iconic. The presence of the cow could, admittedly, suggest a parodic intention. It could also, but not necessarily, imply a degree of misogyny in its association of women with urinating bovinity. The long hair of the female figure next to the cow is made to formally echo the jet of urine. One of Bernard’s contemporaries, the slightly older Edgar Degas, repented somewhat late in his career that he had ‘thought of women too much as animals’. Emile Bernard’s friend Félix Vallotton was an avowed misogynist who occasionally, though far from invariably, depicted women in positions of cruelty. Vallotton’s Orphée Dépecé shows Orpheus being brutally stoned and savagely ripped apart by a group of modern maenads. Representations of rape are also not uncommon in Vallotton’s later work. Bernard’s Hercule contre les Amazones (1927) does seem to owe something to Vallotton’s Homme et femme ou Le Viol (1913) in its desire to fantasize about male domination and yet there is such rapt and lavish attention to female expressiveness in both Vallotton and Bernard that it is impossible to pigeonhole them as inveterate misogynists.
If you cannot make it out to the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, the catalogue of the exhibition is well worth the purchase. It spans the whole of the artist’s career and offers striking parallels between Gauguin and Bernard, Picasso and Bernard, Bernard and his Renaissance idols.