By Carter B. Horsley
Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) was not a revolutionary
artist but he synthesized several different styles to create works
of striking painterliness and memorably glorious color.
He borrowed a lightness from the Impressionists,
a bold palette from the Post-Impressionists and Fauves, a compressed
dimensionality from Matisse and added an immense intensity of
His oeuvre combines the poignancy of Degas
with the lyricism and luminosity of Rothko.
He may not be in the very top tier of artists
and, indeed, much of his oeuvre, is a bit disappointing - too
sketchy, too unresolved, almost sloppy. Nevertheless, at his best
he is marvelous and many of his most sensational paintings are
included in this exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, which
was shown previously at the Tate Gallery in London.
finest painting in the exhibition is the 1931 "Large Yellow
Nude," property of a private collection, shown at the left.
The catalogue essay entry for this painting
compares the nude in the painting to the Medici Venus in the Uffizi
in Florence, which is interesting, but certainly that sculpture
had nothing to do with the red and white sheet in the foreground,
a pyrotechnical tour de force. Bonnard often painted female nudes,
usually his wife, Marthe, but this is perhaps the most elegant
and alluring even if the modeling of the left arm is a bit awkward.
This is a great composition and an even more dazzling painting,
one that calls to mind the Rokeby Venus by Velasquez and the Odalisques
of Ingres for feminine beauty, but which literally outshines them.
Bonnard is better known for his paintings of
nude women reclining in their baths, several of which are included
in the show. They are very fine paintings because of their luxuriant
and radiant patterning rather than the mostly submerged nudes
The nudes are mostly of his wife, Martha, whose
lithe body is that of a gamine. These are not sexy paintings.
Despite Bonnard's hot palette, they are, in fact, rather cool.
Yet they are very intimate, very precious, very private, momentary
delights. You feel he has caught a fine moment of peace and tranquility,
rather than passion and teasing. One conjures, of course, the
famous bath nudes by Degas, but they, on the whole, intimate activity
rather than Bonnard's passive models. The temperament is completely
different. The Degas paintings are usually pastel and warm. The
Bonnards are oils and luminously hot. On the other hand, Degas
conveys a sense of affection while Bonnard conveys a decorative
sense and takes much greater liberties.
The exhibition has many surprises for those only accustomed
to the bathing nudes and Bonnard's famous window scenes. One of
the most satisfying is "The Bathroom Mirror," shown
at the right, from the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow.
Here, the nude is more voluptuous and Rubenesque than in most
of his other nudes. The 1908 picture, however, is more remarkable
for its very unusual and effective composition and its very restrained
palette. One conjures the great interior scenes of Vermeer and
Ter Borch here, but also thinks that this is how Rubens might
have dashed off this as a version, or critique, of a Cezanne still
life. What is most striking is the clarity and of the reflected
image in the mirror and the deep blacks of the chest behind the
nude. The reflected image would be a fine painting by itself.
Its muted, patterned surroundings cannot engulf it and make it
all the more startling. There is a problem, of course. Where is
the observer/painter in the reflection? Where is the strong light
that illuminates the nude's back coming from and why isn't it
casting more light on the vase and bathroom accessories?
Bonnard, in fact, frequently distorts his perspectives
to achieve an awry ambiance. Many of his compositions seem somewhat
John Elderfield makes much of this in remarks
in an interview printed not in the museum's catalogue but in a
museum brochure in an interview with Anna Hammond:
"I'm especially drawn to trying to understand
the defining aspects of early modernism, and what happens to narrative
subject matter is certainly one of them. Between 1906 and 1912,
between Matisse's Bonjeur de vivre (1905-06) and the invention
of collage, there's an amazing change. In these six years, the
idea of a painting as a depiction of narrative finally gives way
to a kind of painting where the narrative aspect is effectively
passed over to the beholder. The beholder is asked to 'perform'
the picture perceptually, and thereby combine the parts to provide
the unity (or lack of it) that narrative subject matter did previously.
This certainly happens in Bonnard's paintings....I think that
what he took from Matisse and Picasso was the idea of painting
by accretion - by parts added to parts - and it began to click
for him that this had a relationship to both his early interest
in ambiguities and his Impressionist interest in shifting natural
perceptions. He was able to bring it all together in paintings
that change as you look at them, where the subject-matter therefore
emerges in the time of the viewing, and where the beholder, therefore,
is actively engaged in the production of meaning."
Elderfield, whose essay in the catalogue ($29.95,
soft-cover version, with 273 illustrations of which 115 are in
color) is mostly on the perceptual qualities of Bonnard's art
and is quite esoteric, to put it mildly, continues in his Hammond
interview to note that Bonnard tends to evoke a sense of transitoriness
and uncertainty in the visual environment..."You come away
with a sense that the world is somehow less than certain."
Less than certain? Perhaps. But Bonnard is very lush,
reflecting his roots with the Nabis, a group of artists who called
themselves the Hebrew word for "prophets" and followed
the teachings of Gauguin to strip art to the essentials of color,
surface and form, a movement in which decorative texture was as
important as subject matter, indeed, more so.
A superb example of this is "The Bathroom,"
a 1932 work, shown at the left, given to the Museum of Modern
Art by the Florence May Schoenborn Bequest in 1996. Here there
is resonance and vibrancy, a sunburnt world whose wildly contrasting
elements compete for attention but still do not overwhelm the
foreshortened figure of a nude woman bending forward. Her right
breast is white while the rest of her is reddish pink or in shadow.
Her parted hair atop her head obscures her other breast. The white
breast is rather odd, but not too distracting in such a riotous
and bold composition that is a perfect amalgam of the realist
and abstract styles of Richard Diebenkorn (see The
City Review article). The composition is so studied that one
wonders why the little dog's rear legs and the bathtub's leg seem
to be cut off at the bottom of the picture. One must assume that
such compositional "errors" are intentional as they
occur frequently in Bonnard's work and doubtless have contributed
to his critics who have not put Bonnard in the highest pantheon
and emphasized his "hedonist" side.
Indeed, this exhibition, which was shown at
the Tate Gallery in London from February 12 to May 17, 1998, and
its catalogue go to considerable lengths to rectify that interpretation
of the artist. In their foreword to the catalogue, Nicholas Serota,
the director of the Tate, and Glenn D. Lowry, the director of
the Modern, comment that Bonnard's "observations of daily
domestic life and routine have always made him a very accessible
artist, yet in the fifty years since his death he has come to
be seen increasingly as a profoundly radical painter who broke
new ground by taking as his subject the difficult, complex and
mysterious nature of sensory awareness....he devoted a long career
to exploring and analysing the processes of seeing and looking,
and to translating ways in which visual perceptions interlock
with the processes of memory."
In her catalogue essay, "Fragments of
an Identical World," Sarah Whitfield noted that Bonnard "was
wary of standing about, of being in any way conspicuous, so much
so that before setting out on a trans-Atlantic voyage he shaved
off his moustache in order to look like other passengers."
"Tall, thin, slightly stooping, short-sighted, and with hands
that people noticed were large and often bluish-red, he struck
one of his great-nephews as a man who never looked at ease."
Indeed, the most striking room in the handsome exhibition at the
Modern contains several self-portraits that are mesmerizing. Indeed,
they rival and probably surpass those of Van Gogh and Rembrandt
and even Schiele and Bacon in intensity. They are riveting and
memorable. They are searing and strong, and, most interestingly,
are unlike most of his other work in that they are no mere passive
observations but are directly engaging.
"Bonnard's early work was created in a
climate of Symbolist thought. The reaction of the Nabis against
what they saw as the materialism of their teachers led them, as
Maurice Denis said, 'to seek for beauty outside nature.'"
observed Whitfield. Objects, for Bonnard, are to be contemplated
rather than observed, Whitfield continued, adding that he understood
"that at times the precision of naming takes away from the
uniqueness of seeing."
"Bonnard's acceptance that vagueness and
incompleteness are an essential part of consciousness has many
parallels in the literature of his own time, in the writings of
Henry James, of Proust as well as Mallarmé," Whitfield
commented, adding that "Bonnard makes us aware of the way
in which consciousness is made up of a flow of haphazard perceptions,
but he also makes us aware that the principle subject for the
painter must be the surface which, as he says, 'has its colour,
its laws over and above those of objects.'"
In 1893, Bonnard met Maria Boursin on a street
in Paris. She was 26 years old and had changed her name to Marthe
de Méligny. According to Whitfield, "She had so effectively
erased her past that not even Bonnard learnt her real name until
their marriage in 1925, nearly thirty years after they began living
together" and Bonnard kept their marriage a secret from his
Whitfield recounts that Bonnard was known to
go to great lengths to rework a painting, "using friends
to distract guards in museums, or turning up at collectors' houses
with a small paint-box in his pocket.
The exhibition includes several of his great
bath pictures late in his career in which the model, now the memory
of Marthe, lies in "white porcelain tombs made incandescent
by the gold and violet light reflecting off the surfaces of the
tiles and the water...[and is] suspended between being and non-being,"
"These pictures are about more than just
the passage of time or the consolation of memory. They are, like
so many of Bonnard's images, about the acceptance that everything
in nature surrenders to time...These works crystallise what has
always been Bonnard's primary mood, that of elegy. He has often
been described as a painter of pleasure, but he is not a painter
of pleasure. He is a painter of the effervescence of pleasure
and the disappearance of pleasure. His celebration of life is
one side of a coin, the other side of which is always present
- a lament for transience."
Melancholy, yes. Lament, no.
At his best, Bonnard created sumptuous works
that celebrate the execution of a revered, human vision. Transient,
yes, but also transcendent.