Hand-Fan Leaf, Femme y Fleurs , Pierre Bonnard, 1895
Everyone loves the Tate Modern. The former Bankside Power Station with its dramatic facade and gutted interior provide the perfect home to shelter the impressive modern art within. Currently on exhibition until May 6th, (so get down there SOON) is the not-to-be-missed Pierre Bonnard exhibition. Bonnard was one of the founding members of the Post-Impressionist group of avant- garde painters Les Nabis and his early work was strongly influenced by the work of Paul Gauguin, and Japanese artists such as Hokusai. What interests KHU KHU about him, were how these influences, along with other trends and fashions of the day, made him one of several prominent artists of the late 19th and early 20th century to paint hand-fan leaves, both mounted and otherwise.
At the start of Bonnard’s career, towards the end of the nineteenth century, the hand-fan was back in fashion again after a period of decline. An attractive but optional accessory in the middle of the century they were now an essential wardrobe accessory to match the extravagance and exceptional elegance of fashionable dress from 1885 to 1914. In France they were enjoying the Belle Epoque and Parisian fan-makers such as Duvelleroy developed a plethora of styles linked to high-fashion which were sold internationally. And while some of the periods most celebrated fan painters such as Madeleine Lemaire lamented a loss in quality of fan painting due to the sheer number of fans being produced in Europe , the increase in theatrical and commercial fans, as well as a massive increase in Asian exports of varying qualities, high quality, innovative and antique fans were seen as increasingly important historical and art objects. (1) This was in part due to their appearance in key art expositions and exhibitions of the time which introduced them into the realm of fine art. Nearly all the prominent French artists tried their hand at painting fan leaves at some stage in their career including Manet, Degas, Monet, Pissarro, Bonnard, Gauguin, Moriset and more.
So why were the fan leaf works of these artists perhaps less regarded than their major works on canvas? Well one issue was that of categorisation. Were they works of fine art or works of craft? It appears that even those painted onto paper with the intention to stay as such were then categorised as applied arts or design due to their properties as belonging to an artistic object. Secondly, there was the issue of gender. The fan was seen as a feminine object and therefore simply not taken as seriously in a male-dominated high- art world. Several women were painting fans at the time, both professionally and in the amateur realm, apparently reducing to only secondary importance the fan leaves of respected male artists in comparison to their other works (not so Belle Epoque in every sense it seems!) Also, the issue of commerce comes into play. For the struggling artist, perhaps the popularity of the fan signified an easy sell to private clients and collectors. Degas, for example, may well have believed his themes of theatre and dance would be a commercially safe investment aimed at the wealthy women of the time, and not have taken the work as seriously as his bigger paintings. Which leads us to the final reason, that perhaps because the fan was such a popular object in that period, it caused fan leaves to lose an exclusiveness associated with a canvas or sculpture, there was perhaps “ a lingering feeling of commercial art. (2)”
What is of interest therefore is to look back with a 21st century eye at these works, removing the elements of gender bias and to take more of a William Morris or Bauhaus approach (that the worlds of fine art and design can be held in the same esteem). These fan leaves should then be treated just as other contemporary works by the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists who painted them. While finally, we can’t know if the harder-up artists themselves held these works in any less esteem in the name of earning money, we can see from Degas’ variety of techniques and applications for example, that his interest in the form was genuine.. And why would Gauguin keep painting fan leaves well into his successful years when money was no object? And why not simply paint a simple pleasing motif rather than rise to the challenge of the unique compositional and technical challenges of a fan format, as so many did? No, I'm of the belief that these fan paintings are beautiful works of art that manage to achieve what both Impressionists and Post-Impressionists set out to do, to capture the fleeting moments of their modern world, on what was, ultimately, the quintessential object of that world.
Hand-Fan, Project with characters among the trees, Pierre Bonnard, 1984, Musee d'Orsay
Hand Fan Leaf, Dancers on the Stage, Edgar Degas, c. 1879, pastel with ink and wash on paper, Norton Simon Museum
Hand-Fan Leaf / Eventail, Foire de la Saint-Martin, Pontoise, Camille Pissarro, 1981
Hand-Fan Leaf Aréaréa, Paul Gauguin, 1892
Hand-Fan Leaf, Paysage, Édouard Manet, 1881
1) FANS, Avril Hart and Emma Taylor, V&A Publications, 1998
2) FASHIONED TEXTS AND PAINTED BOOKS, 19th CENTURY FRENCH FAN POETRY, Erin E. Edgington, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2017
3) FANS, Helene Alexander, Shire Publications, 2002
If you can speak French and are interested in this you can buy a book called Eventail Impressionisme that I would have loved to read on this but alas, my GCSE French doesn't quite stretch to the reading of French literature, darn.