Pierre Bonnard

The Museum of Modern Art

June 17 - October 13, 1998

"...the precision of naming takes away from the uniqueness of seeing"

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 own.

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.

Perhaps the 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 themselves.

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 askew.

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 family.

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," Whitfield wrote.

"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.

The Museum has its own website on the exhibition

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