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Calm • Self-Knowledge • Perspective • Growth & Maturity

How to Make It Through

Probably the most remarkable thing about this ostensibly very ordinary painting is that it was made in the last months of the First World War – which had been in train for the previous four years and made off with around 40 million combatants and civilians.

Pierre Bonnard, Still Life with Lemons, 1918

The pretty picture’s creator was the fifty-one year old French artist Pierre Bonnard who had over this period also painted trees in blossom, evening skies, the neighbour’s cat, his wife in profile and a succession of daffodils and roses

Some accused him of turning his back on his times; they said: ‘Become more political, face up to the bloodshed all around you.’ And Bonnard replied, ‘Everything I have been painting is about the war.’ The lemons were – in his eyes – also responses to destruction, viciousness and madness. He wasn’t painting nice things to avoid reality, he was looking very deeply at a few tiny remaining islands of goodness in order to help himself – and us – to stay somewhat sane in the midst of boundless horror. This was painting not to blind us, but to give us courage. 

Bonnard will never be an artist for everyone; he will particularly offend people who have not yet had too many difficulties. He is an artist not for people who don’t care but for people who are in danger of going under if they don’t sometimes take the time to look very closely – almost religiously – at a flower or a fruit. An interest in delightful things is no alternative to a knowledge of catastrophe; it is what grants us moods in which we can hope to be of some use to those who depend on us.

We rely on beauty – which includes dawn skies, quiet days, animals, chats with kind people untarnished by ambition and warm dark laughter – in order to make it through. We can’t know how much a simple bowl of lemons may come to mean to us until life has shown us its properly difficult sides. Those who thrill here aren’t the innocent, they’re those who’ve been allotted more pain than they deserve.

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