Bonnard and Le Cannet in the Mediterranean Light



of an Exhibit

by Gretchen Jennings

Published on October 07, 2011

  • Description:

    While visiting family in Nice in September I had an opportunity to see the newly opened (June 2011) Musée Bonnard in nearby Le Cannet, a few miles north of Cannes.

    Pierre Bonnard (1867-1949) was a Post-Impressionist painter whose work has often been ignored or downplayed because he came to prominence at the turn of the last century when many of the avant garde in France had turned to Cubism. Bonnard continued all his life to explore light and color in the manner of the impressionists, and he is increasingly receiving due respect for his work. I discovered him at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC a number of years ago after I had first visited the Cote d’Azur. I came upon his three canvasses at the Phillips, and the glowing colors and views of the sea through palm leaves and flowers made me feel as if I’d been dropped back into the Riviera for a few moments.

    Bonnard lived for 22 years in Le Cannet with his muse and wife Marthe, until his death in 1949. There has been a Bonnard Cultural Center in the town for some time, and his home there has been preserved, but is too small to house a museum. Some years ago the city bought a 19th century hotel and built a modern museum around the structure, preserving its façade and inner staircase and surrounding it with a contemporary space worthy of storing, conserving, and displaying his work. Once inside the museum a visitor passes seamlessly from the modern space to the older one in a series of galleries that occupy the top four floors of the 6-storey building. The museum also includes a sunny education space, designed for classes for all ages, and storage and conservation areas. In many ways the building reminds me of the Phillips Collection which also includes a 19th century house and a modern building. However, here in the Midi the architect has created walls of glass, especially in the stairways and elevator foyers, allowing the visitor to look out on a beautiful old church in one direction and the the rooftops of Le Cannet in the other.

    The opening exhibition, on view until September 26, 2011, was entitled Bonnard et Le Cannet dans la Lumière de la Mediterranee (Bonnard and Le Cannet in the Mediterranean Light). I wish I could share many of the paintings, but photography was not permitted. You can find images on the Museum website. The exhibition featured some 60 paintings organized from the museum’s collection and on loan from museums around the world, including the Phillips. Four themes – self portraits, landscapes, nudes, and interiors – recur throughout the exhibition. The label text was minimal, but each gallery contained stiff cardboard panels that visitors could pull out of a wall container and carry with them. These panels had interpretive text in French and in English explaining the main works in the room. At the beginning of the show there was plenty of background information on Bonnard’s life and work in the context of French and European history, living as he did through the two World Wars and befriending many of the better known artists of his day, in particular Matisse. Several galleries featured a glass case with diaries, photographs, letters, and other memorabilia of the artist, allowing a glimpse into his daily life. His appointment calendars were especially interesting- on each day he notes the general weather – sunny, cloudy, etc- and also includes a pencil sketch – it appears as if a day did not go by when he was not drawing, and by implication, thinking about and practicing his craft. For me the most striking characteristic of his work is the use of vibrant color, whether the scene is inside or out – blue bathroom tiles or blue sky, yellow wallpaper or a stand of mimosa trees. The design and pacing of the show allowed space to appreciate this quality.

    The museum sponsored a number of educational programs through September, and I was able to attend a workshop for adults on looking skills that was a fascinating experience. The facilitator provided us (a group of about 17) with background on Bonnard’s life, his development as an artist, and the major influences on his work. Then she turned us loose to explore and discuss specific paintings in small groups, bringing us together for a final discussion. I talk more about this learning experience in my blog Museum Commons.

    The exhibition was fairly traditional in its layout and commentary, but for all of that, the curators and the designers, together with the architect, stood back and let the works speak for themselves, echoing the colors and light of the local environment. If you plan to be in the south of France any time soon, be sure to check the museum website to see what the current offerings are. And if you are in DC, which may be more likely, stop by the Phillips to see Bonnard’s works there. At either site you won’t be disappointed.

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