Oh, to be a cat in one of Pierre Bonnard’s paintings.
Bonnard loved his pets, and painted them accordingly. In the masterpieces now on display at the Legion of Honor, one can find them everywhere.
“Pierre Bonnard: Painting Arcadia” is the first major international exhibition of the great artist’s work on the West Coast in 50 years. More than 70 works are on display through May 15, from early paintings to photography and large commissioned murals.
At first glance, the richly colored works seem to convey an easy calm. But on closer look, the paintings invite viewers to study their careful composition, deeply layered in meaning and sometimes with a touch of melancholy.
“There’s a lot of thought behind these paintings,” says Esther Bell, curator in charge of European Paintings for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “Once you’re confronted by them, the complexity of them is really astonishing.”
Bonnard, who died in 1947, was a student and follower of Paul Gauguin. He was also part of a group of young painters known as “Les Nabis,” which took their name from Hebrew word meaning prophet.
Bonnard’s use of vertical elements, patterns and flattened perspective found in Japanese art led to his nickname “le Nabi trés japonard.” After the Nabis broke up, he went his own way and never again affiliated himself with a particular school.
Bonnard frequently painted friends and family, most notably his wife Marthe de Méligny. The works are so lively and fresh that viewers may feel that they just interrupted someone in the midst of breakfast or a getting out of the bath.
In “The Work Table,” a dog and cat sit quietly behind a desk covered with papers and books. At first the composition might seem haphazard. But on closer reflection, says Bell, one can feel the presence of the people who inhabited the space.
Cat owners will enjoy paintings like “Woman with Cat, or The Demanding Cat,” from around 1912. A woman sits at a table before a plate of food with a white cat glaring at her. The look is priceless.
The exhibition is organized by the Musée d’Orsay in Paris with the Fundación MAPFRE in Madrid and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
The late Dina Vierny, who modeled for Bonnard in 1941, called him the greatest painter of the 20th century.
“Every time I look at his paintings, I find an inexhaustible pictorial richness,” she once said. “When you begin to know his work, when you begin to understand it, the brushstrokes go straight to your heart.”
IF YOU GO
Pierre Bonnard: Painting Arcadia
Where: Legion of Honor, 100 34th Ave., S.F.
When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; closes May 15
Tickets: $15 to $25
Contact: (415) 750-3600, http://legionofhonor.famsf.org/