Émile Bernard (1868-1941)


"Art has been the battle of my whole life."

Born in Lille in 1868 to a father who was comfortably off and employed in the textile industry, Emile Bernard showed an artistic and literary talent very early on that he wished to develop despite parental hostility. Having copied old paintings and created a review with future writer Louis Lormel, he entered Fernand Cormon's workshop in Paris when he was 16, having been recommended by Michel de Wylie, a Russian painter who was a neighbour of his parents. There he developed friendships with Louis Anquetin (1861-1932) and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901).

The young Bernard, soon expelled from the workshop for his progressive ideas, undertook a journey on foot in Brittany in 1886, as far as Saint-Briac and then Quimper, where he met the painter Schuffenecker. Schuffenecker talked of his admiration for a certain Gauguin and encouraged him to join him in Pont-Aven, but this first encounter was fruitless. In 1887 Bernard was painting pointillist canvases when he became friends with Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), who like him used to frequent Père Tanguy's paint supply shop in Montmartre.

Captivated by the Dutchman's collection of Japanese prints on crêpe paper, Bernard and Anquetin soon abandoned Signac's 'ridiculous process' to work out an opposing pictorial theory: and so Cloisonnism was born, inspired by stained glass and vernacular imagery and presented at the end of 1887 in the Grand-Bouillon restaurant on the Avenue de Clichy, where Gauguin made the acquaintance of the Van Gogh brothers. With what he would later call his 'geometric syntheses', the layout inspired by Japanese prints (eg Ponts de fer, Asnières), Emile Bernard was definitely at the heart of the avant-garde.

The following spring, he left for Brittany on foot, stopping in Saint-Briac before getting back to Pont-Aven and his sister Madeleine who was to become the artists' muse. Strongly encouraged by Vincent, the young man met Gauguin who was still searching for his way. Gauguin made a note that: 'Little Bernard [...] has brought interesting things back from Saint-Briac. Here is someone who fears nothing.' Thus began an intense collaboration that gave birth, in that summer of 1888 in Pont-Aven, to Synthetism. Opposed to rising materialism and positivism and founded on primitivist philosophy and the work of memory in order to express interiority, it was characterised in formal terms by simplified design, shapes with outlines and the flat application of colour.

Skilfully illustrated by Bernard's Bretonnes dans la prairie, this style, which greatly stemmed from his earlier work, lived up to the expectations of Gauguin who received at the same time Vincent van Gogh's letters as nourishment, with intellectual and spiritual reflection on art and the place of the artist: he seized on it straight away to create a very personal symbolism which he would continue to develop afterwards. In 1891 this earned him praise from Albert Aurier, a brilliant avant-garde critic, yet by omitting to mention Bernard, the critic would provoke in Bernard a life-time of disagreement and resentment towards the artist he had appointed 'father of symbolism in painting'.

In the years that followed, beyond the scenes of daily life in Britanny, his subjects varied between venal love and the Christian religion – his Catholic faith having been revived through his contact with Britanny – in the image of his personal dichotomy: 'I was sluttish, mystical; ascetic at times, sadistic at others. Quite monstrous in all, because I love exaltation, nothingness, death.' (Letter to Schuffenecker, around May 1891).

Given a rough ride by the critics and abandoned by a number of his colleagues, Emile Bernard was encouraged by Count de La Rochefoucauld to return to Sâr Péladan's Salon de La Rose+Croix, but the flight of his much-loved sister Madeleine to England, and the planned return of Gauguin to France finally made him decide to leave the country in 1893.

After a stay in Italy spent studying the 'Primitives' and mixing with Paul Sérusier and Jan Verkade, he worked in Samos on religious frescoes at the Missionary monastery which gradually led him to Egypt. Seduced by this 'sensual and serious land' and by Hanenah, a young Arab Christian girl, Bernard got married and settled in Cairo. In a restrained synthetic style, at this time he dealt in paint with subjects drawn from daily eastern life, and after a stay in Jerusalem, produced engravings of subjects from religious primitivism destined for the art review L'Ymagier.

Shattered by the death of Madeleine who he had only just met up with again, and missing western civilisation, he went to Spain in 1896 and settled in Andalusia with his family, where he was filled with wonder to discover paintings by Zurburán. He also encountered the painter Ignacio Zuloaga there who would remain his friend. But he came close to death, suffering the illness of his two sons, accusing his wife of negligence, and ended up going back to Cairo in 1897. After the death of his children one after the other, Bernard, influenced by Spanish painting, would look from then on for his 'ideal of Beauty' in the perfect 'contours' of form and in 'Venetian colour', distancing himself at the same time from the Parisian avant-garde, dominated by Les Nabis and Art Nouveau. He made a series of large canvases conceived as a 'book telling Europe the story of Egypt', before going back to Christian subject matter for an exhibition of religious art in Brussels.

Giving in to pressure from his parents, Bernard came back to France in 1901 with his last son Antoine. Following the success of an individual exhibition at Vollard's gallery, he left again for Egypt accompanied by Andrée, the sister of Paul Fort, who wouldn't leave him again.

He ended up coming back to France in 1904 with Andrée and the children, starting with a visit to Cézanne, a painter who he had always admired and stood up for in his articles. He published a new article on the old artist who had finally received recognition and started to paint under his influence, even after he had settled in Tonnerre in Burgundy.

In 1905 he became involved in setting up 'La Rénovation esthétique', a journal fighting against 'the decadence of the Beautiful', by defending the great tradition. Set up in a workshop in Rue Cortot in Paris, Bernard concentrated on the Nude from 1910, before undertaking Le Cycle humain a 'heroic synthesis of the history of civilisation' (Fred Leeman, 2013) and finally, returning to his sources in 1933, the decorative mural in the church of Saint-Malo-de-Phily in Brittany.

Emile Bernard is represented in many public collections, including the Kunsthalle in Bremen (Germany), the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, the National Gallery of Australia, the Philadelphia Museum of art, Indianapolis Museum of Art, fine art galleries in Valenciennes, Rennes, Nantes, Quimper and Brest, as well as the Musée Toulouse-Lautrec in Albi.

(Martine Heudron)

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