Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Digging Daura: letters from Émile Bernard

This installment of the “Digging Daura” blog series comes from Joanna Reising, an art history major and summer intern in the Daura Center. I’ve asked her to discuss two letters from Émile Bernard to Pierre Daura in the Daura archive. (Lynn Boland)

Émile Bernard (1868-1941) was a French painter and writer who, with the help of the artist Louis Anquetin (1861-1932), devised a new manner of painting using black contours and flat planes of color.(1) The critic Edouard Dujardin named the new style Cloisonnism after seeing Anquetin’s work at the Salon des Indépendants in 1888. Dujardin chose the name of Cloisonnism because the dark outlines between the colors resembled the metal divisions in cloisonné enamel. The style shows the influence of Cézanne, Japanese woodcuts, images d’Épinal (prints on popular subjects shown in bright colors; these prints were made in the printing house Imagerie d’Épinal, which was founded by Jean-Charles Pellerin in the 19th century), enamels, and stained glass. Bernard’s style was a source for Paul Gauguin, and the two became fast friends, exhibiting together at the Exposition Universelle in 1889. The friendship was broken after 1891 when Gauguin was named the leader of the Symbolist movement and the inventor of the so-called Synthetist style. The Synthetist style, according to G.-Albert Aurier, “consists in containing all possible forms within the small number of forms which we are capable of conceiving: straight lines, the several angles, arcs of circles, and ellipses.”(2) Bernard felt that this honor of being named the inventor of Synthetism belonged to him. Bernard then spent time traveling abroad, first to Italy, then to Egypt, and then back to Italy to spend time in Venice. During this time abroad, Bernard moved away from the Cloisonnist manner to a more naturalistic way of representing forms. In 1904, he returned to France and began corresponding with Cézanne. Their exchange of letters gives a detailed account of Cézanne’s views on art and theory. In 1905, Bernard founded his own periodical, La Rénovation Esthétique, in which he redefined the Symbolist doctrines of his youth.

Pierre Daura met Émile Bernard in 1914, when Pierre came to Paris and began work in Émile’s studio. Pierre may have chosen Émile’s studio to work in because of his connection with Cézanne. Pierre was a devotee of Cézanne and was already working in a Cézannesque style. The first task Émile gave Pierre was to sort through and catalogue letters sent from Vincent van Gogh to Émile. During Pierre’s time in Émile’s studio, the two became close friends. Two letters sent from Émile to Pierre provide a small window into the relationship between the two.(3) Deciphering Émile’s messy handwriting was a task. Accents were missing, I’s were not dotted, T’s were not crossed, and some of the words were completely illegible. But after several hours of poring over the letters, with French-English dictionary and book of French verbs at hand, I was able to understand the main ideas. The first letter, undated but written around 1914, is a short message letting Pierre know that Émile stopped by to see him but no one was there. Émile says that he wants Pierre to come by his studio, and that he will send five francs for the cost of travel. The letter also mentions that Émile owes Pierre five hundred francs, but it is uncertain why. The five hundred francs could possibly be back payment that Émile owes Pierre (five hundred francs in 1914 France equals roughly 98 U.S. dollars today). On the back of the letter, Émile included two sketches of a nude woman. One sketch is done in graphite and is smaller and seems to be a preparatory study for the second sketch. The second sketch appears to be done in ink and ink wash and shows a light and airy representation of the female form. The sketch employs the dark contour lines that Émile was famous for, and suggests Émile’s emphasis on the generality of nature, which Émile mentions in his second letter to Pierre.

The second letter, undated but written in early 1919, is a response to an earlier letter written by Pierre. For Christmas 1918, Émile sent Pierre two of his books: Souvenirs sur Paul Cézanne et Lettres and L’Esthétique Fondamentale et Traditionnelle. At this time, Pierre was doing his compulsory Spanish military service on the Catalan island of Minorca. It is presumable that Pierre had had time to reflect upon the books and had written Émile to give his thoughts, because in this second letter, Émile thanks Pierre for reading his books. In the letter, Émile elaborates briefly upon the themes addressed in the books and advises Pierre to continue following his dreams and to continue in his art. By reading the letter, you get the sense that Émile views Pierre as his student, and he is encouraging his student to study and work hard in order to realize his dreams. Émile ends the letter with an endearing plea: he wants Pierre to come visit if he’s ever passing through Paris.

These letters show how Pierre Daura went from working in the studio of a prominent artist to becoming that artist’s friend, they provide insights into studio practice of the period, and they further elucidate the theories Émile presented in his publications.

-Joanna Reising, Daura Center intern

1) The following information comes from George Heard Hamilton’s Painting and Sculpture in Europe 1880-1940 and the Oxford Art Online article for Émile Bernard.

2) Herschel B. Chipp, Theories of Modern Art (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1968), 105.

3) Émile Bernard to Pierre Daura, letters ca. 1914 and 1919, Friends and Colleagues series, Pierre Daura Archive, Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia.

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