Émile Bernard plays a singular role in the history of painting in the late-19th century. As demonstrated by the important retrospective of his work mounted by the Fondation Mona Bismarck in Paris in 1991, he was the often-overlooked originator of a number of highly innovative movements (Cloisonnism, Synthetism, even Symbolism), whose paternity he claimed with vehemence in his writings, before he turned his back on them all with equal forcefulness later in life. He moved to the western Paris suburb of Asnières with his family in 1881, and showed an early interest in painting, studying at the Atelier Cormon from the age of 16. Here he met his mentor, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and subsequently Van Gogh. Expelled from the studio in 1886 for insubordination and lack of discipline, he travelled to Normandy and Brittany, where he encountered Gauguin and his followers from the Pont-Aven School. In the same year, he painted the Yellow Christ, which he presented to Gauguin. Bernard had abandoned his earlier interest in Pointillism following a conversation with its founder, Seurat; from 1887, he worked with his close friend Louis Anquetin to devise a new style, known as Cloisonnism (due to its use of flat patches of intense colour separated by thick outlines, similar in appearance to cloisonné enamelwork). The style was subsequently taken up by members of the Nabi group. Inspired by the flat expanses of colour in Japanese prints, Bernard's quest to achieve greater pictorial density in his works led to the development of Synthetism: realistic form was now subordinated to the attempt to give visible expression to 'invisible' ideas and emotions. In this, Bernard may also be seen as one of the founders of Symbolism, and as such a central, revolutionary figure in the history of early 20th-century Western art - an assessment supported by his correspondence with his many friends and associates: among them, Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Odilon Redon.
In 1889, Bernard took part in the exhibition mounted by the Groupe impressionniste et synthétiste at Café Volponi in Paris. Shortly afterwards, in 1891-1892, he broke with Gauguin following what he saw as the latter's 'theft' of Cloisonnism. 'I was 20 years old, he was 40,' he confided to Renoir. 'It was easy for him to pass himself off as the inventor of that which he had merely snatched.' A comparison of Bernard's Yellow Christ, dated 1886, and Gauguin's painting of the same name, dated 1889, would seem to confirm his objections. However, Gauguin's painting is clearly the culmination of an artistic journey embarked upon in the earlier work. Bernard's painting seeks to unify flat areas of colour through the use of outlines, while his body of Christ is modelled in traditional halftone chiaroscuro. In Gauguin's picture, the modelling is achieved using a daring contrast of blue and yellow. Bernard's quarrel with Gauguin also marked a break with his own earlier ideas. He exhibited once more with the Salon des Indépendants in 1891, and with the Nabi group at Le Barc de Boutteville in 1891-1892. He painted his last Breton Synthetist pictures in the summer of 1892, and turned to more overtly religious subjects, as can be seen in the paintings submitted that year to the first Salon de la Rose-Croix. His celebrated picture of the Burial of Vincent Van Gogh dates from 1893, when he organised the first posthumous retrospective of Van Gogh's work. After this, he left France for Italy and Egypt, where he remained for the next 10 years. Overwhelmed by the masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance and the Venetian School, Bernard abandoned his earlier artistic experiments, prompting Cézanne to observe that 'he has completely turned his back on the ideas set out in his writings'. Bernard himself gave a different assessment of his evolution towards a more classically inspired, deeply religious art: 'In the first part of my life, I surrendered myself to colour; I believed its radiance was all. I was a sensual mystic. Later, I understood that the appeal of colour lies not in its radiance, but in its sensitivity, and I reduced my palette to just two colours, preferring to work in variations of tone: no more complementary colours, but rather the juxtaposition of hot and cold tonalities, which comprise all colours within themselves. Finally, in my third period, I have allowed myself to be guided as far as possible by form; noble, grave, austere tones have become my ideal, like organ music in place of the violin (my first period).' In 1908, he pinned the following declaration of faith to his front door: 'Enter not here all ye who do not believe in God, Raphael and Titian.'
Bernard's artistic output embraced painting, printmaking, tapestry and wood-carving, including decorative features on furniture of his own design. He also produced illustrations for Cantilènes by Moréas (1892), L'Ymagier by Rémy de Gourmont (1895-1896), The Flowers of Evil ( Les Fleurs du Mal) by Baudelaire, Homer's Odyssey, Ronsard's Les Amours and Villon's Poésies. In addition to his extensive correspondence with Van Gogh, Gauguin and Redon, he wrote poetry and criticism, published in the highly doctrinaire review La Rénovation esthétique, which he edited from 1905 to 1910. Bernard was indeed something of a Renaissance man, a catalyst in the evolution of modern art who produced his key works early in his career and subsequently left it to others to put his theories into practice.
His works have featured in individual exhibitions and retrospectives, including: 1904, Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Paris; 1943, Émile Bernard: La Jeune Sculpture française, Galerie Charpentier, Paris; 1967, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille; 1968, centenary exhibition, Musée de l'Association Paul Gauguin, Pont-Aven; 1984, Oriental Watercolours by Émile Bernard, Musée départemental du Prieuré, St-Germain-en-Laye; 1990, Émile Bernard, a Pioneer of Modern Art, Städtische Kunsthalle, Mannheim and Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam; 1991, retrospective, Fondation Mona Bismarck, Paris; 2000, Émile Bernard: Prints, Musée de Pont-Aven; 2002, Centro Culturale San Bartolomeo, Bergamo; 2003, Émile Bernard in Egypt, Centre Culturel d'Égypte, Paris.
Museum and Gallery Holdings
Algiers: Orientalist Study
Copenhagen (Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek): Women Gathering Apples (Les ramasseuses de pommes) (1888, oil on canvas)
Lille: Neapolitan Drinkers; Wandering Jew
Paris (MAM): Woman Smoking Hashish; Breton Women with Parasols; Breton Landscape
Quimper (MBA): Studies of Breton Women (c. 1888); The Bois d'Amour at Pont-Aven (c. 1888-1893); Bretonneries: Three Breton Women and a Cow in a Field (1888-1889)