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Remembering the Immediate

Impressionist painter Pierre Bonnard's creative process

BONNARD By Nicholas Watkins; Phaidon Press Limited, 240 pp., $49.95.

FRENCH painter Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) drew rapidly in front of a subject. But he painted his paintings in his studio. The subject had become a vivid memory to be recollected.

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So although viewers of ``La Nappe a carreaux rouges'' (``The red-checked tablecloth'') may justifiably imagine that they and the artist himself are sitting at the opposite side of the table from his wife, Marthe, and their black labrador, Dingo, the fact is that when he actually applied the oil paint to the canvas and produced this engaging image, it had long since disappeared.

``The presence of the object, the motif, is disturbing to a painter,'' he once observed. ``An idea being the starting point of a picture, there is danger that he will allow himself to be influenced by the immediate, direct view of its details, if the object is there while he works.''

The purpose of his drawings ``on the spot'' seems to have been to fix - in a virtual shorthand - essential points of reference to remind him later of some passing moment. The moment, and its reinvention in the terms of a painting, is absolutely crucial to Bonnard's vision. Although the dog fixes its mistress with a ``feed-me'' stare of frozen intensity, it has popped up above the horizon of the table like a porpoise and will be gone in a minute.

Marthe, perhaps in a reverie, fiddles with something between her fingers. She seems both permanent and transitory. Even the touch of sunlight illuminating the tip of her nose will, in an instant, vanish. The various objects on the table are carelessly strewn around, and they are blurry as though merely noted out of the corner of the eye. The dominant image is the repetitive check of the tablecloth; but even that, by the nature of its patterning, is fragmentary, a patchwork of color soon to be whisked off and folded up in a drawer.

``Bonnard,'' by Nicholas Watkins, a new, full-scale book from which this color plate is reprinted, offers a rounded, thoughtful portrait of an artist who is more multifaceted and complex than is often assumed. Bonnard did not merely extend into the 20th century something of the color and light of 19th-century Impressionism. He made it very much his own and developed its capacity for a kind of instantaneous glimpsing of ever-changing appearances by bringing his own particular color sense to it, and his unusual sense of a picture's necessary structure.

Bonnard has often been criticized for a kind of formlessness. But Watkins, by making his readers look much more studiously at the artist's works than their charm alone might demand, persuades us that here was a highly - if unpretentiously - experimental painter.

He learned very early in his career to look much more at the painting he was working on than the subject it represented. The subject thus becomes almost a pretext. It is the variety of different marks, patterns, and delineations made by the brush; it is the light and the vitality of the color; and it is the mood and atmosphere of the remembered moment that are the main incentives of a Bonnard painting.

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