Monday, November 29, 2010

Digging Daura: letters from Émile Bernard

This installment of the “Digging Daura” blog series comes from Joanna Reising, an art history major and intern in the Daura Center. The image above is a drawing by Bernard on the back of the first of the two letters discussed below. (Lynn Boland)

In a follow up to my post that I wrote in July (which you can read here), I will talk more specifically about the letters sent to Pierre from Émile Bernard. Many thanks to Martha Randolph Daura, who was able to provide a complete transcription of the letters. How she got through the undotted I’s and uncrossed T’s I will never know!

There is not much to add to my description of the first letter, undated but written around 1914. Émile had dropped by to visit Pierre and to see a frame on which Pierre had apparently been working, but no one was there. Émile insists that Pierre stop by his studio the next day at five o’clock, saying that he will send five francs to cover the cost of the trip. He also says that he doesn’t have the 500 francs to pay Pierre, but that he will give what he can to last until Thursday. Maybe Thursday is payday? Maybe Thursday is the next time Émile will get money? Whatever the case, Émile owed Pierre 500 francs (which would equal approximately 100 US dollars in 1914) and couldn’t immediately get the full sum to Pierre.

I was able to understand more of the second letter, undated but written in 1919, with the help of the new transcription. If you remember from my last post, Pierre was fulfilling his compulsory military duty on the island of Minorca around this time. By reading Émile’s letter, it is obvious that Pierre was worried or upset about something. It is possible that he was frustrated by not being able to paint or that he was going through some sort of artistic crisis in which he was questioning his own abilities. Émile states that he has faith in Pierre and in his abilities. He wants Pierre to forget the traditional views of nature and to “pass the rest off as non-existent.” Émile believes that because Pierre has pride and soul he will not betray his cause. Finally, Émile encourages Pierre to see everything easily and straightforwardly. These uplifting words are followed by entreaties for Pierre to write to and visit Émile whenever he has the chance.

By reading these letters, one is able to see the evolution of the relationship between the two artists. Pierre begins as a worker in Émile’s studio to becoming a close and dear friend of the artist. Émile’s own insights into painting are evident in his advice to Pierre, giving us a first-hand account of the style of the time and of a personal style that was an important source for Pierre.

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