By Carter B. Horsley
Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947)
is one of those figurative artists whose oeuvre is consistently
narrow in subject matter but almost always surprising in its powerful
palettes and unusual compositions.
His style borders on the clumsy
and the casual, but not the "cool": if anything, Bonnard's
work is incandescent, radiant and hot. He is also very, very painterly.
In my review of the 1998 Bonnard exhibition at the
Museum of Modern Art in New York, I observed that he "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 own. His oeuvre combines the poignancy
of Degas with the lyricism and luminosity of Rothko."
"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."
Bonnard is best known for nudes
of his wife standing in a bright yellow room or bathing in her
tub and for garden party-like scenes of lush overgrowth and almost
unbearable brightness and for some stark close-up self-portraits.
This exhibition, however, has
a lot of startling works that are not easy to categorize but definitely
"The White Interior,"
for example, is a large oil on canvas that shows one side of a
large dining room. It measures 43 1/8 by 61 3/8 inches, and was
painted in 1932 and is now in the collection of the Musée
de Grenoble. It is a richly, stark, show-off work that eschews
prettines in favor of complex geometry and an intensity of light,
especially white light.
In a catalogue essay entitled
"Intelligent Seeing," Rika Burham provides the following
commentary about "The White Interior":
"You can look for a long
time at White Interior...before realizing that someone
is there. The room's rich tableau - the radiator to the right
of the half-opened door, the fireplace to the left, the study
chair pulled up to the table - is by now familiar to us. The luminous
door and radiator, side by side, recall the porcelain, pearly
substance of Bonnard's bath paintings. Above the radiator are
splashes of unaccountable sunlight. The screen door opens onto
the porch, revealing deep tropical skies and the beginnings of
blue night air curling up into the oranges and greens. Only after
scanning of all of this does the eye hesitate and discover the
almost imperceptible are at the end of the table: a person, wearing
a red striped robe, with a spash of yellow hair and a wisp of
a face. Her dress is made of the same material as the carpet,
with the same patterns. Instead of overlapping the table, she
blends into the floor, and thus is perfectly camouflaged. Appparently
unaware of anyone watching her, she seems to have just bent over
before we, as viewers, happened upon the scene. Then we notice
a small cat, with two tiny eyes, looking up at us. Did the cat
just slide in, as cats do? Perhaps the woman was feeding it, and
we are seeing her as she begins to rise back up. Her robe, no
longer a camouflage, becomes one with the hot colors of the sky,
and the figure within almost disapppears. Our eye then returns
to the door, to the smoldering paradise without for it is in such
exteriors that Bonnard depicts the emtional temperatures
of his domestic interiors."
In her essay, "The Presence
of Objects" Still Life in Bonnard's Late Paintings,"
Dita Amory, associate curator of the Robert Lehman Collection
at the museum and organizer of the exhibition, wrote that "writers
in contemporary French publications dismissed him as a latter-day
Impressionist out of touch with modern trends....If Bonard's trajectory
was far removed from the avant-garde circles of Fauvism, Cubism,
and Surrealism, his color was nonetheless more radical at times
than that of the Fauves, his imagery more complex and mysterious
than that of either Cubism or Surrealism. More important, his
process of looking always remained highly original."
In her catalogue entry for
the painting, Ms.Amory provides the following perceptive commentary:
"Set in the upstairs sitting
room of Le Bosquet, White Interior exploits 'all possible
liberties of line, form, proportions [and] colors,' as Bonnard
wrote in his daybook (January 14, 1934), in order to 'make feeling
intelligible and clearly visible.' The paiting ignores conventions
of space, proportion, and color, confounding out expectations.
The spatial field, for example, is much wider than what the human
eye could naturally see. The exterior views of the Mediterranean,
Cannes, and the Esterel Mountains in the distance at first offer
a more conventional description of time and place, but the framelike
horizontals and verticals of the door mullions suggest instead
a strange triptych - or diptychlike configuration of landscapes.
The rectilinearity of the tabletop, the half-open door at center,
and the angled drop of the fireplace interior contribute to the
complexity of the composition. The true subject of the painting
is color, particularly white and its nuanced variations in the
presence of yellow, blue, ocher, and red...."
In his foreward to the catalogue,
Thomas P. Campbell who just replaced Philippe de Montebello as
the museum's director observed that Bonnard's "late paintings,
far from simple interiors imparting some prosaic narrative, are
often disquieting in their use of color as a metaphor for a spectrum
of sensations." "Taken together," he continued,
these paintings reaffirm the artist's constant search for compelling
imagery and his deep engagement with the mysteries of optical
A less abstract but more intense
work is "Interior: Dining Room," a large oil given to
the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond by Mr. and Mrs. Paul
Mellon. Ms. Amory notes that Bonnard experiments with peripheral
vision with "indeterminate presences, the stealthily arriving
figures, the fugitive outlines so transparent the colors behind
bleed through and partially conceal them. In both The Breakfast
Room and Interior: Dining Room..., we see figures only
slowly, almost reluctantly. They are unrevolved, out of focus,
and nearly genderless. ....In Interior: Dining Room, the
woman is more peripheral than spectral, almost a side show to
the pagenatry of the table. The edges of Bonnard's paintings are
entrances for mystery and menace alike."
The composition is strongly
balanced and the rhythmic and intense verticality of the stripes
in the top half of the painting is an insistent drum beat dramatically
calling our attention to this otherwise conventional scene.
The verticality of "Interior:
Dining Room," appears again in "Table in Front of the
Window" but now it decorates not the walls but the tablecloth
and dominates the lower rather than the top half of the painting.
"Table..." is a much
bolder composition that is also quite subtle. Rectilinearity is
replaced with some curves and once again a "spectral"
figure is present, barely, at the right. Rika Burham states that
the figure is "barely a thin outline in white," adding
that "The volatile orange color of her skin is the same as
that on the wall seemingly behind her."
"She enters in a rectangle
of sunlight," Burham continued, "her disjointed hand
holding a skeletal spoon or perhaps reaching for an equally sketchy
carafe. No features define her further, but she like many of the
other figures we've seen, comes with her own source of radiance.
It spills onto the table and its edge, onto the curtains and the
tiny leaves hanging above the window like a halo. This is the
most ephemeral of figures, a face etched in white light, a fragment
of a torso dissolved into dabs of paint, arn arm sketched and
resketched, appearing to reach into the room and retract at the
These ephemeral, peripheral
figures are really prizes for the patient viewer, visual candy
of discovery, and are quite "secondary" to the overall
compositions that are very, very powerful and unusual.
In her discussion in the catalogue
of "Still Life with Bouquet of Flowers (La Venus de Cyrene),"
Nicole R. Myers provides the following commentary:
"The unusual format of
this long, rectangular canvas recalls the decorative panels painted
by Bonnard and the Nabis in the 1890s."...[It] was created
in honor of his friend and dealer, Josse Bernheim-Jeune. Similar
to how Van Gogh sometimes used images of contemporary literature
to add to or enhance the meanings of his works, here Bonnard painted
a portrait of the dealer by representing his publications. The
bright yellow cover of Bernheim-Jenune's 1930 novel, La venus
de Cyrene, stands out prominently among the still-life elements
on the table, while a corner of his periodical, Le Bulletin
artistique de la vie, hovers at the edge of the composition
like one of Bonnard's spectral figures....Bonnard modestly downplayed
his own involvement in the project, however, as the illustration
he created for the novel's cover is conspicuously absent from
the representation of the book in the painting."
"In the Bathroom,"
an oil on canvas that measures 36 1/4 by 24 3/8 inches and was
executed circa 1940, is a work whose pale palette and composition
are very similar to famous works by Richard Diebenkorn. It is
a mysterious work even though it does not appear to contain any
"spectral" figures.The deep blue stripe surrounding
the interior, the unusual dark colors of the ceiling, and the
rising pale blue "fog" of a seanced tablecloth and the
cloudless bright blue sky out yonder all contribute to a melange
of intriguing, but not threatening elements. Could this be Hercule
"Young Women in the Garden
(Renée Monchaty and Marthe Bonnard)" is a work whose
poignancy is not visually apparent. Bonnard started the painted
in 1921 and returned to it in 1945. It depicts the two important
women in his life as well as being highlighted by his always strong
patterning and his luminous colors.
In her catalogue essay "Still
Life in Bonnard's Late Paintings," Ms. Amory discusses this
"The very color of light
for Bonnard was yellow, one that describes light, gives off light,
is light. Significantly, yellow was also the color that Bonnard
associated with his former mistress, Renée Monchaty, a
flaxen-haired young woman who was also his model. (When Marthe
learned that Bonnard had proposed marriage to Renée, she
protested and prevailed, causing the devastated Renée to
commit suicide.) This tangled association is vividly illustrated
by Young Women in the Garden (Renée Monchaty and Marthe
Bonnard)..., a painting Bonnard began in 1922-23, soon after
Renée's, death, and reworked in 1945-46, after Marthe died.
Renée, radiantly golden in a white shirt turned violet,
stares at the viewer - unusual for Bonnard - while looking inward
as well. To her left is an ominous, dark vertical shape set against
the light, perhaps a foreboding of the dark exit to her short-lived
beauty. Behind her, a golden orange, red, and magenta plate (basket?)
of fruit is touched by a smaller plate of three fruits, analogous
to the overlapping lives of Bonnard, Marthe, and Renée.
Foregrounding this gilded vision is the dark barrier of the chair
back, its arc held toeether by clawlike spindles that separate
Renée from the darker, cropped Marthe, whose presence here
is a formal, as well as a psychological, intrusion. In the lower-left
corner a pet dog looks on at both women, almost as if choosing
between them. In this painting, one of Bonnard's last, yellow
is clearly the color of the sun, of optimism, of life. ...'One
cannot have too much yellow,' Bonnard said. For him, yellow was
not just a color."
The artist kept this unfinished
painting in his studio and when he returned to it in 1945, according
to Ms. Amory, "he gilded the background in saffron yellow,
as if to give the memory of Renée a transcendent radiance,"
adding that "Marthe may have prevailed in life, but her presence
here in paint is decidedly marginal, even voyeuristic."
In her catalogue essay, "The
Cat Drank All the Milk: Bonnard's Continous Present," Jacqueline
Munce discusses "Lunch or Breakfast," a lovely and haunting
painting Bonnard executed circa 1932:
childlike - untamed, not yet socialized - just as she does in
early photographs. Bonnard captures every trace of this animal
quality in Marthe by relying on her natural, or instinctual, reception
of sensations, her conscience in its precognitive state: her passive
wait for the tea to grow cold; her attention diverted by the dog
begging for its morning caress and treats; the scent of flowers
on the table; the smell of brioche blending with that of fruit;
the chirping of birds that distracts her eye from the task at
hand; the muffled sounds of conversation rising through the house
which she does not every try to comprehend; the slow breeze through
the flowers that make their corollas sway, and whose changing
colors attract the eye much in the way that light reflecting off
bathroom tiles dissipates in the water at a stroke of the fingertips.
Ever the 'wonderstruck observer,' in Muarice Denis's words, Bonnard
favored such moments of somnolence or modest distractions, the
passivity of anaesthetized consciousness upon waking or duringeandering
walks. But he also painted moments of abrasion or astringency
that stimulate the skin - a warm touch, the shock of textures
familiar to the body - with precise, concentrated gestrues that
lead us back to a more consious presence in the outer world. This
state of latency and nonchalance, the 'potpourri of indecision'
that Picasso so despised in Bonnard's works, eliminate the need
for decisivenssness; it allowed Bonnard to not decide, or, as
Bois, has suggested, it gave him the choice to not choose."
A woman wearing a yellow shawl
appears in two large paintings in the exhibition, "The Yellow
Shawl" in the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery,
and "Corner of the Dining Room at Le Cannet" in the
collection of the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The former was painted
circa 1925 and the latter in 1932. The former is a more defined
and detailed composition that finely demonstrates the artist's
fascination with patterns and exaggerated perspective. The latter
is slightly more abstract - almost showing the influence of Fernand
Léger - with a somewhat confusing sense of volume and depth.
The earlier painting is an amalgam of Matisse and Van Gogh influences
while the later one almost suggests a Rothkoesque painterliness
where blur transcends content.
"Woman with Mimosa"
is a very attractive 1924 painting of a pensive woman sitting
beside a tray with mimosas in a flower pot. The woman's face is
directly behind and above the flowers and the painting resonates
with the "indecision" between whether this is a still
life or a portrait.
The exhibition has numerous
purely still life works by Bonnard and perhaps the best is "Still
Life on a Red Checkered Tablecloth," a watercolor, gouache
and pencil on paper from 1930-5 that is owned by Mr. and Mrs.
Joe R. Long of Austin, Texas. It is very vibrant and a fine composition.
"The Table" is a
1925 composition in which a white tablecloth dominates the center
of the painting and is strewn with more than a dozen objects that
are clearly defined and individual and seem not to "compete"
for their space. One is tempted to see a version of this painted
by Wayne Thiebault whose rich impasto technique would surely make
these objects edible. The Bonnard composition, moreover, again
offers Marthe lost in paying attention to her dog at the top of
the composition as if she just happened to wander into the room
and sit down obvious to Bonnard's easel and the many objects on
the very large table. The composition's asymmetry is highlighted
by two small bright spots, one at the very top edge of the painting
and one about halfway down the right edge. These two elementsw
serve to distract some attention away from Marthe and make the
composition actually more human by emphasing its imperfect symmetry.
It is very painterly.
"The Breakfast Table"
combines many of Bonnard's signature elements into one quite luminous
composition. An oil on canvas from 1936, it measures 25 1/8 by
37 1/2 inches and is one of many works in the exhibition still
in private hands. The catalogue entry notes that "the compressed
space, strongly geometric appointments, oddities of scale, and
other occasional ambiguities of planar form are...all typical
of the artist's late work." The composition bears a similarity
to beautiful, small, 1932 watercolor by the artist in the exhibition
that is entitled "Cup of Tea by the Radiator," and which
is at the Musée Pierre Bonnard Le Cannet, Cote d'Azur,
on deposit from a private collection.
Bonnard painted "Work
Table" in 1926-7 but returned to it in 1937 to simplify the
design of the rug. The catalogue notes that the painting "was
confiscated by the Nazis during the Second World War and eventually
found its way into Hermann Goring's collection of appropriated
art works," adding that "recovered by the Allies after
the war, the painting was restituted to France in March 1946 and
was included that year in an exhibition of repatriated French
masterpieces. It is now in the collection of the National Gallery
of Art in Washington, D.C., Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon.