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The Part and the Whole


In a seminar with the painter John Walker, I heard him say that with a painting, you should be able to see it all in one go and then also be able to lose yourself in the details. When I was at the Milwaukee Art Museum recently, I saw a painting by Pierre Bonnard -- one of his later ones from the 1930s -- and I thought this statement is truer of no artist more than him.


The painting is from a series that Bonnard produced based on his morning walks around his house in the south of France. It shows a view looking down across olive groves and gardens, with a few figures working in the rows, and a line of tress like a curtain across the background. When you step back from the painting, you see the large, loosely indicated shapes of field, a small house, the bent figure of a man, a woman to the right, an explosion of sky behind the trees. The foreground is tilted and flattened out in a way that reads as an abstract and not a naturalistic space.


We accept this, because it's once you move in close that you see all the glorious overlapping brushwork, and total instinctive mastery of light tones that keep the eye occupied for so long.

Picasso is on record as saying he hated Bonnard's painting. "All that indecision!" he is supposed to have said. Well, some of us might also call that "exploration," and a joyful playing with paint until a picture comes into being that is both a collection of fidgety marks and a record of a thing seen, even if that thing is something as difficult to grasp as the light refracted through air.

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