Stunning Graphic Images

New show offers a well-timed reminder of Bonnard's daring, sophisticated art

CONTRARY to expectations, the 1989-90 New York art season is turning out to be one of the best on record. Not only is there a truly great Velazquez exhibition, there are outstanding shows of work by Picasso, Braque, Canaletto, Calder, Benton, and Grandma Moses. And now, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has done it again, this time with a beautiful and impressive survey of Pierre Bonnard's prints.

``Pierre Bonnard: The Graphic Art'' is a well-timed reminder of his premier status as a printmaker and a welcome reaffirmation of his quality and importance as a draftsman and colorist. Its 125 prints, drawings, illustrated books, and paintings survey his production from 1890 to 1930, with a special emphasis on the formative first decade of his career.

The show includes affectionate and humorous scenes of family gatherings, depictions of modern Paris life, studies of nudes, and landscapes of the Ile de France and the C^ote d'Azur. Six of his illustrated books are also included as well as numerous studies and sketches of children and animals.

In all, it is as choice a selection of one artist's prints as we've seen since the Museum of Modern Art's superb exhibition of Lautrec's graphic production in 1985. For that, we have Colta Ives, curator-in-charge of the Metropolitan's Department of Prints and Photographs, to thank. The exhibition, which took three years to organize, consists of works drawn from 36 public and private collections in Europe and America, but it depends primarily on the Metropolitan's own extensive holdings of Bonnard's etchings, lithographs, and related works.

Bonnard was born near Paris in 1867. His earliest training was in law, which he dropped, however, in the late 1880s for classes in art at the Acad'emie Julian. While there, he met painters Denis, Vuillard, and S'erusier, and with them founded the Nabis, a group of artists with common interests in decoration, Gauguin's paintings, and Japanese prints.

During the 1890s, Bonnard was busy with designs for posters, prints, and book illustrations, as well as for stained glass, decorative panels, and furniture. Between 1889 and 1902 he produced over 250 lithographs, most of which were designed to announce, advertise, ornament, or illustrate publications.

It is to these lithographs that this exhibition pays particular attention. They dominate the show - either in their final form as daringly designed and richly colored prints, or as studies executed in preparation for translation onto the lithographic stone.

Some of these are among the most stunning and sophisticated graphic images of the past century. ``The Little Laundry Girl,'' in fact, is one of the most famous of all modern prints, with ``Family Scene'' (1892), ``Boulevard'' (c.1896), ``Street at Evening in the Rain'' (1896-97), ``La Revue Blanche'' (1894), and ``Child in Lamplight'' (1897) close behind.

No one was ever more daring or original than Bonnard when he conceived and executed his 1895 color lithograph, ``The Schoolgirl's Return'' - or for that matter, ``The Bridge,'' which he made one year later. In both, Bonnard practiced the greatest economy of means (the latter, especially, looks like a seven-minute sketch), but with such shrewd insight into the as yet not fully explored potentials of the color-lithographic medium, that the final impression appears not only ``inevitable,'' but profoundly satisfying as well.

Like a great chef, Bonnard was particularly effective at mixing ingredients in order to create new and sometimes startling results. This was especially true when it came to pattern and color. In ``The Square at Evening,'' for instance, he produced a stunning gaslight-on-sidewalk effect by juxtaposing a jagged, solid-black shape against a splash of yellow within an extended stone-colored area. And in ``The Little Laundry Girl,'' everything hinges on the precise placement of a dark diagonal shape against four flat areas of modified earth colors.

As a matter of fact, comparing Bonnard to a chef is appropriate, since almost everything he produced turned into a feast for the eye. Bonnard was this century's most sumptuous painter, the one who produced the most ravishing coloristic effects, and who always did so within a carefully calculated representational context.

This exhibition reminds us, however, that he was equally brilliant with black-and-white. For pure, summary draftsmanship, nothing can surpass his ``The Goat'' or ``The Cat'' (both executed in 1904). And for sheer black-and-white vibrancy, I know of few prints the equal of his 1893 ``Parisiennes.''

After leaving the Metropolitan Museum on Feb. 4, this first-rate exhibition travels to The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (Feb. 25-April 29), and then to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (May 25-July 29).

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