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Art & artists

Bonnard’s Sleeping Beauties

— December 2014

Article read level: Art lover

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Cover illustration of Sleeping Beauties: From Bonnard to Balthus

Some of the Musée Bonnard's treasures can be seen in a recent catalogue

Sleeping Beauties: From Bonnard to Balthus by Véronique Serrano, Jean Clair, et al.

Musée Bonnard is situated in Le Cannet, the commuter town close to Cannes and Nice. Bonnard lived in a villa here from 1910 until his death. The small museum holds a number of works by the artist and stages temporary exhibitions of art by (and related to) Bonnard.

The catalogue Sleeping Beauties accompanied a recent exhibition featuring paintings, drawings, prints and sculpture of women asleep, some of them nude, others clothed. The sleeping woman was a recurrent subject for Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947). He often painted his wife Marthe and his mistress Renée reclining or seated, eyes closed. His series of Marthe bathing could be considered art of the sleeping woman; the faces in these works are rarely clear enough to tell. In the exhibition Bonnard’s images of women were shown next to those by Brancusi, Matisse, Picasso, Delvaux, Balthus and other contemporaries of Bonnard.

Brancusi was represented by two sculptures: a realistic carving and a stylised bronze head. The carved head is a profile in marble of c. 1908; the fragment nestles in the rough marble block, similar to pieces by Rodin that were well known to Brancusi. Ultimately the approach derives from Michelangelo’s unfinished carvings of his ‘Slaves’ series. Muse Sleeping (1910) shows radical simplification of form: an ovoid of polished bronze, features lightly indicated and not described. The head has become an egg-like object, independent of any body, its serene self-sufficiency embodying the experience of bodily detachment while dreaming.

Bonnard’s 1899 painting The Indolent shows a woman lying on the edge of an unmade bed with a cat curled by her. The light is dim, veiling the woman’s face in shadow. With the model’s legs open and the bed in disarray, it is a frankly erotic work. Sleeping Woman (1928) is a world away from this. The model’s head is bowed and the room is suffused with intense colour: violet, orange and yellow, with no true white in the interior. Only a brushing of near-white representing blossom outside shows us how pungently hued the interior and figure are. The early painting was made in Paris and the later painting made in Le Cannet and the palettes and moods could not be more different. The curators decided – probably correctly – not to include any of Bonnard’s bathers.  

Balthus (1908-2001) made his reputation by painting women (and girls) asleep. Although he is represented by only one picture, it is one of his most beautiful drawings. In it, his model Michelina’s head and arms are seen as she lies facing downwards, her head cushioned by the pillow beneath. The smoky rich appearance of the large (70 x 100cm) drawing is achieved using a combination of smudged charcoal and chalk. 

Likewise Paul Delvaux (1897–1994) is best known for his somnambulant female nudes. The painting here is an early (1934) watercolour and is in the transition period between Delvaux’s early Expressionist phase and his classic mature period.  Matisse often treated the sleeping model as subject. Although the oil included here is not a particularly good example of this, the prints are more clearly centred on the head of the sleeper.  

Curiously, rather than making the figure seem vulnerable, closed eyes seem to protect the sleeper. The figure refuses to acknowledge us and renders us insubstantial, being unable to access what the figure experiences. Unable to interact with the subject or to change her state, the viewer becomes distanced from her. Although in many cases these images result from the model’s act of making herself comfortable (and filling endless hours), it is also possible that artists felt most comfortable working while not be observed or having to converse.

Picasso used motifs of the sleeping woman charming the hero, artist or minotaur to evoke mingled moods threat and tenderness. This is the classic beauty-and-the-beast imagery. The prints here from the 1930s are some Picasso’s very best. Félix Vallotton (1865–1925) features prominently with two large canvases. He began as a Nabi illustrator for the French press and in later years specialized in painting nudes. His realistic nudes (albeit painted in rather earthen hues) are set in invented surroundings. The disjuncture between figure and setting suggests the dislocation of dreamer from environment – though this is actually an incidental affect. All Vallotton’s figures, waking or asleep, are painted in the same manner.

Real finds are Henri Lebasque’s gentle Sleeping Woman, Villa Dernière, Saint-Tropez (c. 1928), on loan from the USA. Another is a drawing of a woman asleep in a chair by Bulgarian artist Jules Pascin. The oil painting by Tal Coat reminds us of how close in technique he and Balthus were in the 1930s. Other artists include Charles Camoin (Fauvist), Giorgio de Chirico, Maurice Denis, Paul Gauguin, Georges Lemmen, Alfred Lombard, Henri Charles Manguin (Fauvist), Jean Puy, Odilon Redon, Auguste Renoir, József Rippl-Rónai (‘the Hungarian Nabi’), Paul Sérusier (Post-Impressionist), Chaïm Soutine, Kees van Dongen and Édouard Vuillard (Intimiste).

The catalogue discusses the motif of the sleeping model and its significance. Detailed catalogue entries guide readers regarding less familiar artists. There are sure to be surprises for even readers already familiar with figurative French art from 1900 to 1950. It is notable that none of the artists are female. An exhibition of female artists painting sleeping women (or sleeping men) might have a subtly different character to the current exhibition, so the decision to exclude them here seems sensible. That alternative exhibition would make interesting viewing.  

The catalogue Sleeping Beauties: From Bonnard to Balthus by Véronique Serrano, Jean Clair, et al. is published by Musee Bonnard/Silvana Editoriale, 2014. 160pp., English/French text, fully illustrated, €27.00/$40.00 (ppb),. ISBN 9788836 628315


Alexander Adams
Writer and artist

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