OnlineBENDALL / BERNÈDE : A Story of Painting in Bordeaux
Added to list
“It is after all by colour that you will express yourself”
- Mildred Bendall
Whitford Fine Art are delighted to present the first exhibition of selected works by Bordelais artists Mildred Bendall (1891- 1977) and Georges Bernède (b. 1926), her most important student. Their relationship was unusual and exceptional for the time: a female artist influencing a young male painter of a drastically different social and artistic background. Bendall's teachings and support would prove invaluable to Bernède, she who had held her own against the likes of Marquet and Matisse. Both would bring a love and exploration of colour and unremitting commitment to the advancement of the avant-garde to the art world of Bordeaux, an area of France notorious for its conservatism.
Born in 1891 into an affluent merchant family, Mildred Bendall would want for nothing. Provided throughout her life with independent means, she was able to fully dedicate herself to her artistic progress, unrestricted by the need to achieve commercial success. From 1910 to 1914, Bendall received traditional artistic training at the ‘École des Beaux-Arts’ in Bordeaux, whilst simultaneously attending private classes of the local fashionable painter Félix Carme. Her early works emulate the ‘Chardinesque’ style of her tutor, conforming to the prevalent Academism of the time. Nonetheless, her early style shows Bendall’s solid grounding in drawing, technique and composition; skills which would later earn her the respect of Henri Matisse and Albert Marquet.
Following her formal training, Bendall travelled extensively throughout the South of France drawing and painting the local landscapes and architecture. She spent her summers at the family holiday home in l’Herbe, an idyllic oyster village in the Bassin d’ Arcachon, where she executed some of her most enchanting coastal views. At home in Bordeaux, she continued to paint views and still lifes in a traditional style, of which Country Table (c.1915) is an excellent early example. Her paintings of this period were exhibited at the local Bordeaux ‘Salon des Beaux Arts’ and in 1920 Bendall gained admission to the ‘Salon des Artistes Français’ in Paris. Eventually, she would move to the capital from 1927-1928. Her year in Paris would prove to be revolutionary. She attended the ‘Académie de la Grande Chaumière’ in Montparnasse where, as well as meeting the Eastern European émigrés, Bendall rubbed shoulders with the French avant-garde artists who would form the core of what later became known as the ‘École de Paris’: Braque, Giacometti, Picasso, Rouault, Léger, Marquet and, most importantly, Matisse. Her friendship with the great master would leave a lasting impression on Bendall and her work.
Under Matisse’s guidance, Bendall became an active force of the avant-garde in a highly conservative Bordeaux. On her return in 1928, she helped found the Society of ‘Artistes Indépendants Bordelais’ to challenge the prevailing Academism. At Bendall’s request, masters such as Bonnard, Braque, Utrillo, Matisse and Picasso would submit paintings to the Society’s yearly exhibitions. In addition, Bendall was also not only a member of ‘L’Ensemble’, a group formed for artists of various disciplines to meet and share ideas, but also a founder of ‘Le Studio’, a free academy based loosely on the programme of ‘La Grande Chaumière’ in Paris. It was the first to offer life-drawing classes and a meeting place for other progressive artists in Bordeaux. Though a central figure of the avant-garde movement and tireless promoter of other Bordelais artists, Bendall never sought fame for herself, striving only to push the boundaries of artistic progress.
From the 1930s onwards, Bendall’s own style would become far more versatile and adventurous. Works such as Bouquet and Harbour (c.1935) of everyday scenes and familiar objects reduced to simplified forms rendered in striking, sumptuous colours are testament to her ready absorption of Matisse’s ‘Fauve’ ideas. Colour becomes the very building block by which Bendall suggests not only form and space, but also emotion. As Matisse advised: “Simply look for the colours that create the sensations [you] feel.” Considering Bendall was a highly private individual who spent much of her life with her immediate family, these canvases are extremely revelatory of her character and of her relationship to her art and her surroundings. There is a warmth and exuberance in her works and their execution which is undeniable. It was no doubt this quiet intensity that so fascinated the fourteen-year-old Georges Bernède at their first meeting in the picturesque bastide town of Monségur.
Forced to flee Bordeaux at the onset of the Second World War, Bendall had settled in Monségur with her siblings which was situated in France’s Free Zone. It was here that, in around 1940 on a small country road, a young Bernède saw her painting en plein-air. The encounter would leave an impression on the aspiring artist that would cement his desire to pursue painting professionally. However, unlike Bendall, he was not born into wealth. The son of a local cabinet maker, Bernède’s desire to become a painter was mocked and discouraged by his family and the inhabitants of Monségur. His father, wishing his son to take over the family workshop, considered painting to be a frivolous pastime for the wealthy and certainly not a legitimate way of earning a living. Thus, convinced that Bendall would dismiss his son’s works, he sent some of Bernède’s pictures to her.
“My style was innovative; and, therefore, unsettling”
- Georges Bernède
Contrary to all expectation, Mildred liked what she saw and encouraged the young Bernède, giving him books on André Lhote and Dusnoyer de Segonzac. What would begin in 1945 as a correspondence course between the two painters would soon blossom into a lasting and fruitful friendship. Bendall would instil in Bernède the ethos of a true colourist, advising him to “think of suggesting space and volume by colour.” As can be seen in his still life works such as C066 - Composition 64-2: Nature Morte à la Chaise Bleue (1964), he readily adopted Bendall’s technique of building a composition with colour, here in rich autumnal tones, instead of shapes. Eventually, she would guide him to transpose what he felt instead of painting what he saw. Bendall also tirelessly promoted his work with the ‘Indépendents Bordelais’, where his paintings hung alongside her roster of avant-garde masters.
Though the Second World War brought many changes in its wake, the profoundly conservative artistic communities of Bordeaux would not warm to Abstraction until the late 1950s, decades after it had become a recognised movement in Paris. But Bernède continued to push the boundaries of the accepted and the exhibitions of his works at the 1946 Salon de Mai of the ‘Artistes Indépendants Bordelais’ and his piece La Bicyclette at the 1949 ‘Salon des Artistes Indépendants Bordelais’ caused a scandal and were considered nonsense. As Bernède himself remarked: “My style was innovative; and, therefore, unsettling.”
Undeterred, Bernède continued to paint in solitude with Bendall’s continued support. Thus, like his tutor, Bernède would not suffer the pressures to conform to commercial demands or intellectual expectations. He was able to explore art freely and his style naturally developed into gestural abstraction. From 1968-84, he would depart from the full colour palette of vivid colours favoured by Bendall and explore subtler applications of earthy tones punctuating dramatic swathes of black and white paint. After the mid-1980s Bernède’s palette would become almost entirely monochromatic, with occasional hues of brown and blue, as shown in his oil on canvas C049 - Composition 88-16 (1988), his preoccupation centering instead on the movement and energy fundamental to the act of painting itself.
Whilst Bernède would grow to fully embrace abstraction, Bendall would only ever flirt with it. Works such as Red Sails (c.1955) and her mountain landscapes from the mid and late 1950s hint at it, but their construction is more akin to Cubism, whilst the colour and brushwork remains rooted in Fauvism. But this does not mean Bendall’s oeuvre was any less daring compared to Bernède’s. Taken in the context of conservative 1930s Bordeaux, her body of work was extremely bold. She paved the way for Bernède’s and many other Bordelais artists’ unfettered artistic progression. Bernède owes much to his teacher, whose advice on colour he would heed until the end of his career, even when his palette was dramatically reduced to only two: “It is after all by colour that you will express yourself.”
Mildred BENDALL / 1891 - 1977
Georges BERNÈDE / b. 1926