The Laws of Nature

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Art of Making a World

The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa
By Michael Kimmelman, 2005

Chapter 1: The Art of Making a World

In this chapter, Kimmelman takes us behind the scenes into the intimate and seclusive lives of Pierre Bonnard and his wife, Marthe. Their world was carefully constructed to satisfy Marthe’s need for extreme privacy. Whether or not Pierre wanted this lifestyle is unclear, but he nevertheless created and maintained it at least for Marthe’s sake. The natural consequence was that Bonnard chose to find inspiration, beauty, and meaning from his immediate surroundings and from introspection. As Kimmelman writes, that was precisely Bonnard’s gift to posterity. He explored his world every day, and as he did so, it became more and more fantastical. In his own words, Bonnard explained it this way: People always speak of submission to nature. There is also submission to the picture. Even the most ordinary surroundings can inspire a masterpiece, especially if the goal is to create a work of art rather than a faithful rendition of one's surroundings.
Viewing Bonnard’s work is a voyage into a fantastical place. He transforms his world from ordinary to extraordinary by enhancing reality through color and form manipulation, disguised or nearly obscured forms that add nuanced meaning to the work, and brushwork that enlivens his subjects. Bonnard's world as he senses it becomes apparent; it’s meaningful and it’s alive.

What was the catalyst for the transformation of Bonnard's paintings from skillful to masterful? Kimmelman wrote in the Introduction to this book that The consequence of his [Bonnard’s] meeting Marthe was, you might say, an accidental masterpiece. Or to put it another way, Bonnard made his novel deep, and beautiful art out of what seemed to many friends and observers a claustrophobic and sometimes unfortunate relationship. To live intensely is one of the basic human desires and an artistic necessity. Bonnard, in his elective reclusiveness with Marthe, lived all the more intensely through his work. His force of will in so doing was a creative and illustrative act.

Lately, I’ve been paying attention to the madness and methods of those who achieve – who excel beyond their own wildest dreams. What do they all have in common? Imagination, passion, focus, a sense of purpose, perseverance, ability to avoid distractions, and fearlessness. There are so many “artists” in the world today but how many of us elect to own these characteristics? How many of us take full advantage of creating a masterpiece derived from our intimate world? How easily do we turn aside from our passion and goals in the face of failure and distractions?

If I were double-jointed I would buy a pair of sharp-toed cowboy boots and kick myself in the butt every time I am distracted from my art making in order to pursue something that ends up being a total waste of time, that fails to inform my work. For instance, watching TV or doing something that someone else should be doing instead. Am I serious about making art or not? Ouch! My butt hurts.

Kimmelman's words are true: To live intensely is one of the basic human desires and an artistic necessity.
What are your thoughts?


Anonymous said...

When I first read this chapter last winter, it is what woke me up to realizing my art is what I choose it to be. It helped me to stop searching outside of myself and look to what meant the most to me. And that is now exactly where I focus.
Bonnard's relationship with Marthe was real. His obsession and loyalty to her were apparent. And yet, he still seemed reticent in some way, conflicted. Bravo for him making his art about this most intense, deep relationship.
I'm not sure that achieving greatness in art is about sticking to it as opposed to watching a show on TV. But I do think meaningful art is about exploring what your deepest, most heartfelt emotions and obsessions are. We all have a great fear of being found out. But when we expose ourselves in this way through our art, often we touch something in someone else with the truth of our experience.
I related strongly to Bonnard's relationship with Marthe. Perhaps not in a direct way, but to many different parts. I understand, I think the obsession and loyalty. I admire him exploring it.

hw (hallie) farber said...

Okay, I'm missing something here. Wouldn't Bonnard have explored and painted and been reclusive no matter what world he lived in?

To live intensely is a luxury not many can afford.

Unknown said...

Hi Pam -thanks for sharing your thoughts about this. You make a profound point in your realization. I, too, can point to a time when I had such a realization even though I always thought of myself as an "artist." However, like Bonnard, there can be a turning point in one's career - like a turning on a light.

Hi Hallie - I'm not expert about Bonnard, but the books that I've read about him, including this one, indicate that it was Marthe who was the recluse and that Pierre catered to her, even to the point of obsessing. They actually lived together for decades before marrying, and before they married Pierre briefly left Marthe to pursue another - a woman to whom he became engaged. Eventually, he broke off that engagement and returned to Marthe and married her. The spurned fiancee committed suicide.

hw (hallie) farber said...

So, without Marthe, he would not have moved from skillful to masterful?

Dan Kent said...

Hah! I've only just learned, in the last year or so, about passion and persistence in my efforts at making art. But my lifelong wasteful habits are hard to break - I need a pair of boots too!

Anonymous said...

Is a little bit of time spent in wasteful habits just a time to recharge the proverbial batteries? Or, is it mind candy? These are questions I ask myself and the answers depend on the time of day.

I think this is an interesting question. How would Bonnard's work have developed without Marthe?

How about Picasso and his ever changing intense romances?

Or, the encounter and mutual exchange of ideas between Picasso and Braque at the right time? Was there relationship an accidental masterpiece, at least for awhile? I'm working on grasping this idea.

-Don said...

Wow! I'm glad I came to this discussion late, because I got more out of the comments (including yours, Kathy) than out of the quotes from the book.

Maybe Marthe grounded Pierre - helping to stabilize him and kept him from the self-destructive distractions of his peers. Maybe the suicide of his former lover drove him from skillful to masterful. Or, maybe it was the fact he was a member (at an early age) of les Nabis who were committed to creating works of symbolic and spiritual nature that caused him to "explore his world every day... [becoming] more and more fantastical". Isn't it wonderful how we can extrapolate meaning depending on our own take on someone else's life and choices?

Maybe I'm just feeling ornery and argumentative...

BTW, I'm not double jointed, and I'm afraid I'd throw my back out if I tried, so would you stop by and kick my ass periodically for me? It would be greatly appreciated and I'm sure my wife would even loan you her cowboy boots.


Unknown said...

Hi Hallie - supposedly, Bonnard's relationship with Marthe was the catalyst for his work, or at least he attributed this to her. However, there were many other influences on him. This one may have been the one that changed his work from ordinary to extraordinary.

Hi Dan - I'll loan you mine :-)

Hi Peggy - I think we all need some "down" time to recharge, as you say. For me, the issue is more about getting rid of distractions that take up too much of my time. But, that's not such a problem when the weather turns cold. I'm definitely an out-of-doors gal and when it's warm I like hiking, kayaking, and gardening. Now I'm back indoors and reading/painting. You ask an important question about Bonnard and Picasso. There's all sorts of speculation about both, but Bonnard does give a lot of credit to Marthe for the change in his work. And, Picasso had an entirely different personality. And, Picasso had nothing good to say about Bonnard. He once said: "Don't talk to me about Bonnard. That's not painting, what he does ... Painting isn't a question of sensibility: it's a question of seizing the power, tkaing over from nature, not expecting her to supply you with information and good advice." He also said "Bonnarid is not really a modern painter."
I think you've hit on something when you ask about a chance meeting being an accidental masterpiece. That seems to be the theme of this book - that chance plays a large role in igniting the fires of meaningful creativity. Thanks for your insights!

Hi Don - yes, these are all possibilities. The author of this book rests his opinion upon Bonnard's work and words. He painted Marthe over 400 times, and posthumously. He also attributes the change in his work to her. The other fiancee was much later on, after he had spent a few decades with Marthe. So, the transformation occurred before the failed engagement to the other woman.
Hey - I'll be glad to loan your wife my boots :-)

Casey Klahn said...

"There is also submission to the picture."

That is a million dollar quote. Now I want to know everything about Bonnard.

Katharine: try snakeskin on those cowboy boots - it's a little softer.

Unknown said...

Hi Casey - I agree, Bonnard's quote is one of the best I've ever seen. Ah, thank you for encouraging me to kick myself more softly :-)

Mark Sheeky said...

Hi Kathy. This is my first comment today as I catch up on your blog.

Don't kick yourself too hard. For a start, inspiration can and will come from everywhere, even the most banal tv, and secondly it is good and healthy to have pointless fun sometimes. I think I wrote that paragraph to myself but I won't take my own advice.



Unknown said...

Hi Mark - yes, it's very true that our work is informed by everything. But, procrastination doesn't get the painting painted, so I sometimes have to admonish myself (or give myself a good swift kick!)

Eva said...

I believe everyone has their own work habits, good or bad, but masterpieces come from something more. Few artists have that something.

Unknown said...

Hi Eva - so true!