UC Davis Design Professor Gives Talk on Pierre Bonnard at de Young Museum

Pierre Bonnard painting on display in San Francisco subject of talk by UC Davis design professor
Painting by Pierre Bonnard

Pierre Bonnard’s paintings of blooming gardens and rich interiors are certainly a pleasure to look at. But with their dense color and atmosphere, complex compositional approach and psychological overtones, that pleasure is much more than superficial.

“The paintings touch a deep spot,” said James Housefield, an associate professor in the Department of Design, who will give a talk April 23 in conjunction with a major Bonnard exhibition in San Francisco. “Pierre Bonnard: Painting Arcadia” at the Palace of the Legion of Honor, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, is the first major presentation of the artist’s work on the West Coast in 50 years.

In his lecture “Pierre Bonnard, Painting Pleasure,” Housefield, whose research focuses on the intersections of art and design with an emphasis on exhibition studies, will look at how Bonnard’s paintings offer immersive experiences. 

James Housefield

“He really is reaching to connect to the viewer on an individual basis,” Housefield said. “One gets the sense, especially with the interiors, that you have experienced this place before, that you have been here.” 

Drawing the viewer in 

In many of the paintings Bonnard places objects, usually a table, so they seem to jut into the space of the viewer making him or her part of the work. With overlapping planes some of Bonnard’s paintings have an almost physical force pulling the viewer in. The dense application of paint and warm colors are also a kind of embrace, while unusual perspectives provide an insider’s view to those outside the painting. In some self-portraits, Bonnard looks over his shoulder at the viewer, acknowledging that they are there and are part of the experience. A series of murals he created, some of which are in the exhibition, were designed to physically surround the viewer.

“Bonnard’s art draws audiences into the act of painting as a pleasurable vocation,” Housefield said. “At the same time, his art emphasizes pleasures we all experience when we relish the small details of daily life.”

A Post-Impressionist who knew how art works

Early in his artistic career, Bonnard was part of the Post-Impressionist group Les Nabis — “the prophets” — whose name gives some sense of the prophetically game-changing art they hoped to create. He was also active as a graphic artist, creating ads and playbills where an image had to capture and convey an entire concept in a glance. For his paintings, he made sketches, notes on color, took photographs and used all these in meticulously constructing his works. He understood well how to make art impact the viewer in a variety of ways. 

Although certainly well-known, Bonnard didn’t always make the first cut in art history surveys. 

“I didn’t really know about him, but when I was a student I saw a major exhibition of his work in 1984 in Paris and was just blown away,” Housefield said.

“Bonnard’s art rewards careful looking,” he said. “His painting is ‘slow art’ to be savored.”

James Housefield’s newest book Playing with Earth and Sky: Astronomy, Geography, and the Art of Marcel Duchamp will be published this summer by Dartmouth Press.

The book reveals the significance astronomy, geography and aviation had for Marcel Duchamp who is regarded as one of the most important artists of the 20th century.

Duchamp transformed modern art by abandoning unique art objects in favor of experiences that could be both embodied and cerebral. This illuminating study offers new interpretations of Duchamp’s seminal “readymades” — objects that he made art by calling them “art” — to his early performance art, such as shaving the shape of a comet in his hair. The book demonstrates how the immersive spaces and narrative environments of popular science, from museums to the modern planetarium, prepared paths for Duchamp’s art. 

— Jeffrey Day, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science