28 August 2021

The bumble bee in Pierre Bonnard's tree


          Judas Tree, circa 1990, oil on canvas board, 25 X 15 cm

This is a small thing done in the field at Canto Grilet (across from the Châteaunoir) sometime back in the early nineties. I painted a series there one year, but this was my favourite. There were three or four mature Judas trees in the field that spring to life each May. The Judas tree is named for that scoundrel of Christianity who was said to have hung himself from it.

I always loved this small study because it's so wild, up-close, and in your face, as if I had dove into it like a bumble bee. 

I also remember thinking that I loved it because it made my heart sing. I had touched something inside me that I had longed for ever since I began working outdoors. After all, I never really wanted to paint like an Impressionist which is an easy trap to fall into here in the South of France. But I had to slog it out in the landscape long enough to find something that could really move me. I think I wanted to dissolve distance in a quiet sort of way.

But actually, I first had to learn to paint! The only way to learn was to go out and make lots of really bad paintings. Even when one thinks they have finally "got it", they rarely  do, even after being in the game for a long time. Great is alway one step ahead, and that's a good thing too because the best painting is ALWAYS the next painting, it is the one I'll do tomorrow which of course, now brings us to the PAST.

This painting by Alfred Sisley at the Met has always haunted me. It's entitled The Road from Versailles to Louveciennes, 1879, (and one can only imagine what it might look like today).

When in New York, I ventured uptown just to look at it, mostly on Friday evenings when it was open late. It drove crazy, and looking at it today, again, it still does.  

Google tells me that Sisley made 471 paintings in his lifetime. Not a great deal compared to what so many contemporary artists crank out these days but it's a different world; faster and less discerning perhaps. Sisley spent long hours on each picture outdoors, preferring to finish his work on the motif unlike other Impressionists who went back to the studio. 

He was an exceptionally modern painter who survived the dusty, dogmatic schooling of the Beaux Arts. Regarding painters and their work, he said that "every picture reveals a specific place in it which the artist has fallen in love". 

An interesting observation which I would like to contemplate a little before writing about because I see it somewhat differently. There will always be places in a picture of which the painter will be fond for any number of reasons, some, because they are wonderfully worked areas, whilst others, because they reveal the painter's flaws, mistakes even. The painter never forgets those spots for if he hasn't repaired them, he will have to live with them forever. Indeed!

He also said; "I like all those painters who have a strong feeling for Nature". 
That's for sure, I wholeheartedly agree with that. 

This painting has a tactile and spontaneous application of the paint which means that hidden under his British reserve there was also a passionate Frenchman (he was a dual national).

What I hadn't learned already from Vincent Van Gogh's visceral sensuality I learned from this modest picture. Long before Vincent, Sisley's sky had revealed both clouds and air to be living entities. It had nothing to do with the world of permanence so often evoked in Cézanne's austere pictures. This is a sky of stormy emotion, one that erupts, then dissipates within hours. 

It looks like an early winter landscape to me just before the November chill. The large tree on the left, (in the relative foreground) wiggles and writhes like an old oak resisting the change of seasons; holding on, and holding off, with all its might to its last leaves. The tree to the right of the figures might be an elm, or mulberry, who knows? But unlike the great oak, it has accepted its fate and surrendered its colour. I love that it has been rendered with such lightness of touch. Painted with a rough hog's hair brush then scratched out with a stick even. Its faded leaves are  a lovely grey, and winter lives in its branches. Threadbare, one can almost see through it.

If one covers the entire foreground below the horizon line, one would be left with a picture of a sky and trees, for the most part, and suddenly, it might have been painted by Pierre Bonnard, a Bonnard in a big hurry though. But writing this, and looking at it continually, I might amend that and say that maybe the entire painting could have been done by Bonnard even if the foreground feels more Sisley. The tree (aforementioned on the left) feels so Bonnard! It's hard to describe just why, but it has something to do with the utter lack of pretension in it. It is painted with wild, childlike freedom, so charismatically Pierre Bonnard. Sisley was more of a technician than Bonnard but that it not a slight to either of them. In fact, this picture is rather atypical for Sisley, who is usually a smooth operator with a flawless sense of drawing, loyal perhaps to the older tenets of Impressionism, barely 30 years ahead of the younger, more pictorially modern and adventurous Bonnard. 

And finally, showing my work next to Sisley's might seem a tad presumptuous, or quite pretentious of me (though someone already did find this Blog pretentious, in fact). But, despite all this it has been posted with great humility and a reverence for this often overlooked hero of Impressionism.

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