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Bonnefoy, Yves

    Image Credit: Griffin Poetry Prize

    Full Name: Bonnefoy, Yves

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1923

    Place Born: Tours, France

    Place Died: Paris, Île-de-France, France

    Home Country/ies: France

    Subject Area(s): art history, art theory, deconstruction (theory), Marxism, and semiotics

    Career(s): art critics

    Institution(s): Université de Paris (Sorbonne)


    Poet, literary critic and historian whose work became representative of the so-called New Art History. Bonnefoy was born to [Marius] élie Bonnefoy (1888-1936), a railroad worker, and Hélène Maury (Bonnefoy) (1889-1972), a teacher. As a child he spent summers at his grandfather’s house in the southern France town of Toirac, near the River Lot. His father died when Bonnefoy was just thirteen, affecting the boy deeply. Bonnefoy graduated with honors from the Lycée Descartes in 1941, continuing study at the Université de Poitiers, 1942, in mathematics. During the German occupation of Paris he pursued philosophy at the Sorbonne in 1944, graduating from the University with a degree in philosophy. His early professional years were spent writing on English literature and publishing poetry at various universities. His first writing on art, in 1947, was an essay on the image in the Belgian Surrealist periodical Les Deux Soeurs. He issued his Peintres murales de la France gothique in 1954. In 1959 L’improbable appeared, a collection of essays including some on the fifteen-century Italian painting. He taught literature at severa; American universities, including Brandeis University, 1962-1964, the City University of New York, Johns Hopkins University, Princeton University, and Yale University. Bonnefoy co-founded the art and literary journal L’éphémère in 1967 (ceased publication in 1972). He married Lucille Vines in1968 and assumed an associate professorship at the University Center, Vincennes, France 1969-1970. In 1970 Bonnefoy published Rome: 1630, an analysis of baroque architecture using largely metaphysical observations of space and presence as its core. Bonnefoy’s 1972 L’arrière-pays, his second art-historical book on the Quattrocento, examined spatial representation in the Renaissance. He taught at University of Nice as an associate professor, 1973-1976 and then as associate professor at Provence University, Aix-en-Provence, 1979-1981. The year 1981 was an important year for Bonnefoy. He issued his Dictionnaire des mythologies, a work connecting myths and art history together by psychology; his 1959 “Le temps et l’imtemporel,” appeared in English as “Time and the Timeless in Quattrocento Painting” in a collection of French art-history writing by literary critics, edited by Norman Bryson. The same year he was elected a the chair of Comparative Poetics at Collège de France, previously held by Roland Barthes (1915-1980). He received the Prix Goncourt in 1987 for his art criticism. In 1991 Mythologies appeared in English, reworked by the religion historian Wendy Doniger (b.1940). A survey of mythological and religious traditions (excluding Judaism and Christianity), Mythologies defines the psycho-sexual implications of religious tradition using art to illustrate his point. That same year Bonnefoy published his biography and near catalogue raissoné of his late friend, Alberto Giacometti. Here Bonnefoy excelled by using his own Surrealist sympathies (he had briefly been a member of the Surrealist circles) and his sensitivity to spatial form. Bonnefoy’s art history, as part of what Bryson termed the “New Art History,” places fundamental importance on the act of interpretation. The poet sensitive to the meaning of spatial arrangement in gothic murals or baroque churches is best suited to make sense of the monuments of art. In “Time and the Timeless in Quattrocento Painting,” Bonnefoy argued against Lessing’s Laocoon notion that poetry and art are incompatibly separate media of time and space. In Rome: 1630, Bonnefoy characterized baroque architecture (and particularly the architecture of Borromini) as an attempt to create a space for the divine. As a literary critic and historian, Bonnefoy is associated with nineteenth-century French poets Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud. His translations of Shakespeare are among the best in French.

    Selected Bibliography

    Peintures murales de la France gothique. Paris: P. Hartmann, 1954; L’improbable. Paris: Mercure de France, 1959; Miró. London: Faber, 1967; Rome 1630: l’horizon du premier baroque. Paris: Flammarion, 1970; Dictionnaire des mythologies et des religions des sociétés traditionnelles et du monde antique. Paris: Flammarion, 1981, English: [“restructured” by Wendy Doniger]. Mythologies. 2 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991; Chillida. New York: Galerie Lelong, 1990; Alberto Giacometti: biographie d’une œuvre. Paris: Flammarion, 1991; Yves Bonnefoy: écrits sur l’art et livres avec les artistes. Paris: Flammarion, 1993; Dessin, couleur et lumière. Paris: Mercure de France, 1995.


    Caws, Mary Ann. Yves Bonnefoy. Boston: Twayne, 1984; Bryson, Norman. “Introduction.” Calligram: Essays in the New Art History from France. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988, pp. 15-16; Ragot, Françoise, ed. Yves Bonnefoy: écrits sur l’art et livres avec les artistes. Paris: Flammarion, 1993; Stamelman, Richard. “Introduction.” The Lure and the Truth of Painting. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995, pp. 3-16; Williams, Adelia V. “Yves Bonnefoy: Art Historian.” L’Esprit Créateur 36 no. 3 (1996): 34ff.

    Contributors: Lee Sorensen


    Lee Sorensen. "Bonnefoy, Yves." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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