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Saturday, November 4, 2017

Rupert Bunny

Pastorale, 1893, Rupert Bunny
It's a high mark of character when an individual can change with the times, adopting and adapting with ease to the newness of life each day and each year of their time on this earth. That's especially true as one gets older and less malleable. It's one thing to pass the "big five-ohh" in age with some degree of grace; but even more so when that number marks your graduating from high school; or college, your wedding anniversary, or the age of your youngest child. Think back to all the technological waves which have rolled past. Did you swim with the tide or against it? Count the number of homes or buildings in you community that are older than you. Count the number of people you know who have died that were younger than you. How many presidents have you seen come and go? If you're an artist, try counting the exact number of paintings you've done in your lifetime. If you're one who has, over the years, successfully managed to adopt and adapt, you begin to realize the truth to the saying, "Time flies when you're having fun." (Or as the old frog proclaimed, "Time is fun when you're having flies.")
Handsome, dapper, debonair, Rupert Bunny adopted the persona of a French artist while adapting his academic training to the newest trends in Modern Art.
The Australian painter, Rupert Bunny, was one who, during the course of his life, successfully adopted and adapted. He was one of the most successful expatriate artists of his generation. No other Australian artist ever achieved the critical acclaim that he enjoyed in Paris. An erudite painter of idealist themes, and the creator of the most ambitious Salon paintings produced by any Australian, Bunny is an exotic star in the history of Australian art. Rupert Charles Wulsten Bunny was born in 1864. He grew up in Melbourne, Australia, the third son of a Victorian County Court judge, Brice Frederick Bunny, and his wife, Marie. As a serious musician, fluent in French and German, Bunny left Australia in 1884, accompanied by his father, for Carlsbad, Germany.
Just two of the ladies in Bunny's life. His wife, Jeanne, appears in quite a number of Bunny's important works.
After a few months of study in London, Bunny settled permanently in Paris. There he joined other Melbourne expatriates such as Bertram Mackennal and Charles Conder. However, Bunny tended to choose the company of American and French artists instead. He married a French woman, and in fact, remained in France for the next five decades. During the 1890s and 1900s Bunny focused almost exclusively on painting women. At the center of his imaging of women was his enigmatic wife, Jeanne Morel (above), who was the constant motif until he moved to a new preoccupation with Fauve-inspired mythologies around 1912.

Dolce Farniente (Sweet idleness), ca. 1897, Rupert Bunny.
The central figure is his wife, Jeanne.
Bunny specialized in women at leisure, in gardens, at sea-side resorts, and in parks, such as Dolce Farniente (above) from 1897. These highly successful works have been widely seen as epitomizing the charm of France’s Belle Epoque; his subjects were beautiful women, fashionable frills, sun, sensuous music and glamour of an endless summer; soon to be swept away by war. Bunny consciously worked to align his art with the great masters and traditions of European painting. He admired the Italian primitives, Venetian colorists, the British Pre-Raphaelites, and the tonalists, Manet and Velàzquez. But Bunny also wished to be a modern painter along side the established masters of his own time--Whistler, Sargent, Gauguin, Bonnard, and Matisse. During his decades in Paris, Bunny enjoyed quite a string of successes. In 1890, he was the first Australian to win an award at the Paris Salon, he gained a bronze medal at the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle, while having a string of solo shows throughout Europe.

Rupert Bunny took the old tradition of academic nudes (upper image) and gradually updated it in line with the style and trends of Impressionism and nascent Modern Art.
Bunny was heavily patronized by the French government which had, by the end of his career, acquired no less than thirteen of his works for the Musée de Luxembourg and regional collections -- a first for any Australian artist. His art was acquired by Hungary’s Museum of Fine Arts and National Museum, by the Wilstach Collection in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and by collectors across Britain, Hungary, the US, Chile, Argentina and Russia. When Scottish millionaire George McCulloch exhibited his collection at the Royal Academy in 1909, Bunny’s Summer Dance (ca.1894) was the only Australian painting shown next to major works by Whistler, Millais, and others.

Descent from the Cross, 1898, Rupert Bunny
Bunny’s aesthetic sense stemmed from two opposing influences--the past and his present. His traditional training had been under the French academicist, Jean-Paul Laurens, while his yearnings included an absorption of experimental European trends. He became a master of ambitious figure composition, showing large-scale mythological and biblical subjects such as The Descent from the Cross (above) from the Paris Salon of 1898. His first major pastoral, titled Pastorale (top, now in the National Gallery of Australia) was executed with the technical precision of academic history painting, yet it also reflects the imaginative sensibilities he shared with the popular French Symbolist painters at the time. The Symbolists sought an art that conveyed emotion through suggestion, like music. Bunny’s art united these influences, juxtaposing and uniting the real and the imagined.

Saltimbanques (Acrobats), 1926-30, Rupert Bunny.
Around 1913 there came a distinct shift in Bunny’s art. The seductive women of the Belle Epoque, were replaced by compositions of heightened color and abstracted rhythmic forms. Bunny had noted Matisse’s radically abstract paintings Music and Dance as a juror of the 1910 Salon d’Automne, where they were first exhibited, and the power of Matisse’s boldly abstracted figures and intensely saturated color. He also witnessed the dazzling productions of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes in Paris. Their exotic choreography, ultra modern music, and rich Orientalist sets and costumes had a profound effect on Parisian culture, greatly influencing Bunny’s last major series of paintings, what he described as the 'danse chromatique'. In works such as Saltimbanques (Acrobats, above) from the period 1926 to 1930, Bunny liberated his art from naturalism and fully embraced color, theatricality, and rhythmic composition in his Salomé (below.

Salome, 1919, Rupert Bunny
Following the death of his wife in 1932, and after an absence of almost fifty years, Rupert Bunny returned to live permanently in Melbourne. Despite his age (69) he was assimilated into the local contemporary art scene, exhibiting with progressive artists groups, and holding successful solo exhibitions in Melbourne and Sydney. He was given a major retrospective in Melbourne in 1946, a year before his death at the age of eighty-seven, confirming his reputation as one of Australia’s most significant artists. In the video below, the curator of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Deborah Edwards, introduces an exhibition titled, "Rupert Bunny: Artist in Paris." Included were mythologies and religious paintings, landscapes, portraits, and Belle Epoque visions of women at leisure demonstrating Rupert Bunny's influences from Symbolism, Orientalism, Fauvism and late Pre-Raphaelism.


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