BERNARD Émile
( 1868-1941). Born in Lille, died in Paris. The role played by Bernard was an unusual one -- interesting but tragic. At the age of sixteen he already showed brilliant talent. He started work at the Cormon studio in Paris but was expelled for insubordination. He had met Toulouse-Lautrec there, and after making friends with Van Gogh and Gauguin in 1886 he decided to go and work with the latter at Pont-Aven. In collaboration with his friend Anquetin, Bernard had worked out the theory of Cloisonnism, a style which featured bold flat surfaces and vigorous colours, with black or blue contours separating the forms, like partitions (cloisons). In Brittany he used all his persuasive powers to advocate this theory, and succeeded to some extent in influencing Gauguin. Though this influence was later to become the cause of bitter antagonism between the two artists, Bernard's name will always be linked with this curious Pont-Aven school, which played an important part in the years around 1890. Bernard's early work was tremendously forceful. Competent and original as a painter, he also made woodcuts, sculpture, furniture and tapestries. He was also a poet and writer, with an alert mind charged with religious mysticism and predisposed to philosophical digression. Keen and unselfish in character, he was the first before 1890 to proclaim admiration for Cézanne and Redon, both of whom were partly indebted to him for their rise to fame. He was on intimate terms with Van Gogh, and here again, with utter disinterestedness, did all he could to force recognition of a genius he was practically alone in recognizing. In 1894 he visited Italy, then went to Egypt, where he stayed ten years, working out on his own a new art style inspired by the Venetian masters, for whom he had an unbounded admiration.
On his return to France in 1904 he paid a visit to Cézanne, whose pleasure at the younger painter's enthusiasm did not preclude a subsequent criticism of his work: 'He completely turns his back on all his theories; his drawing is old stuff based on a vision prompted not by a feeling for Nature but by what he has seen in museums, and even more by a philosophic turn of mind acquired through too vast a knowledge of the masters he admires'. Unfortunately, this tendency was only to increase with time.
Bernard was a tremendous worker, and found time, apart from his painting, to write articles, letters, memoirs and polemical pieces, and to give lectures and even to found and edit a review -- La Rénovation Esthétique. Among other things, he published the extremely interesting letters he had received from Van Gogh, Gauguin, Redon and Cézanne -documents which are indispensable to an understanding of modern art.
Though his early works, full of both promise and achievement, are the only ones to attract any attention today, Bernard nevertheless holds an enviable place in art history, for he was one of the rare beings to whom the great painters of his time offered their friendship. He himself felt deeply embittered at being known only as the advocate of Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Odilon Redon while his own later work remained permanently in the shade -- from where it is unlikely ever to emerge.
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