Yves Bonnefoy

1995 Balzan Prize for Art History and Art Criticism

His work as an art critic and historian, inseparable from an important body of poetic work, has contributed in a exceptional way to the understanding of the current situation of art. In his comparative studies on the function of poetry, his interpretations have profoundly renewed the reasons for which we feel attached to the great art works of the past.

Yves Bonnefoy was born in Tours (lndre-et-Loire) on June 24th, 1923 (†2016) of modest origins. After graduating with a degree in Philosophy and Mathematics, be continued his studies in Mathematics, History of Science, and Philosophy at the Sorbonne of Paris. Among his teachers were the philosophers Jean Wahl, Gaston Bachelard and Jean Hyppolite. He took particular interest in the thought of Plotinus, Hegel, Kierkegaard and Shestov.

Youthful contacts with the surrealist artists gave him the occasion to reflect on the status of the image, and led him to question the special privilege it was granted by surrealist aesthetics. Very early, he carne to understand that the highest value had to be ascribed to simplicity, to the category of the finite (subjected to time and death), and to a practice of poetry and art which, not content with “giving to sec” would also “give to live”. These considerations were expounded in Bonnefoy’s inaugural lecture at the Collège de France in 1981 (to be found in English in The Act and the Place of Poetry, edited and prefaced by John T. Naughton, The University of Chicago Press, 1989). Since his first published book of poems (Du mouvement et de l’ immobilité de Douve, 1953), Bonnefoy has been considered as one of the leading poets of the twentieth century. Along with and close to his poetic production, he has published an outstanding amount of work on literature and painting. His study of Rimbaud (1961) was epoch-making. So were his essays on and translations of Shakespeare, his studies on Baudelaire (and particularly on the latter’s deep understanding of artists), as well as on Mallarmé, Laforgue, Yeats, or Jouve. Bonnefoy pays particular attention to what is spiritually at stake in works of art: he takes into account the relationship each artist entertains with the world as it is given to us in the variety of its landscapes, faces, and colors; he is mostly attached to poets and painters, in which he discovers an intuition of the sacred and a compassionate acceptance of otherness. In his reflection on today’s artists, be never avoids to confront the predicament of modernity with the history of western art.

Italian art had an important role in the evolution of Bonnefoy’s poetry and criticism. The experience accumulated during his stays in Italy marks his personal maturation and style. His interest went, beyond modem artists (De Chirico, Morandi), to Italian art of the fifteenth and the seventeenth centuries, and led him to conclusions which are at the center of his most personal thought. They took form in two books, Rome 1630 (1970) and L’arrière-pays (1972), which count among the most beautiful books ever written in the French prose of this century. We should also mention his numerous essays included in such collections as L’improbable and Un rêve fait à Mantoue (with chapters on Piero della Francesca, Balthus, Ubac, Garache), Le nuage rouge (studies on Giovanni Bellini, Elsheirner, Mondrian), and his recent Dessin, couleur et lumière (1995), which contains essays on Mantegna, Poussin, Tiepolo. His monumental book on Alberto Giacometti is not only the most important study dedicated up to now to the great Swiss artist, but also the manifesto of the patient figurative approach to the “model”, in accordance with Giacometti’s great choice. Yves Bonnefoy has collaborated with several painters in the creation of books, which is another aspect of his dose relationship to contemporary art. A world bibliography of the studies devoted to Bonnefoy would include about twenty monographs, a great number of doctoral dissertations, and many articles of lesser dimension.

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