PRINT December 2006

Yve-Alain Bois

FRIENDS KNOW IT IS NOT MY HABIT to praise the installation of French museum shows, but this past January my reverse chauvinism was (temporarily) overturned, as Paris offered three superbly hung exhibitions, each very different in tone: “Dada,” whose overflowing and overstimulating presentation at the Centre Pompidou made its subsequent, much reduced American incarnations (at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York) look absurdly bland; “Ed Ruscha: Photographer” at the Jeu de Paume, a greatly expanded and far better version of a 2004 show at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art; and, finally, “Pierre Bonnard: The Work of Art, Suspending Time” at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. This last exhibition was the one I had specifically made the transatlantic trip to see, and this for two reasons. The first was to pay homage to Suzanne Pagé, for it was her swan song, the last exhibition she curated at the museum where for more than three decades (first as contemporary curator, then as director) she had been the most active advocate of international contemporary art in the overly cautious French museum world. The second was to see if what I had written in the catalogue (I contributed an essay but had no curatorial involvement) stood the test of empirical observation (immodestly, I think it did). For unlike other exhibitions and critical assessments that have cast Bonnard as a realist capturing things “as we see them,” the show convincingly argued from the start that his universe is as much a dreamland as those of Odilon Redon (an artist he loved) and Giorgio de Chirico (whose work I doubt he ever saw).

Thanks to the very beautiful 1998 exhibition curated by Sarah Whitfield at the Tate Gallery in London and presented by John Elderfield at MoMA, we have forgotten how easy it is to make a lousy Bonnard show (I have seen quite a few). A good half of his painting production, which totals more than two thousand canvases, is mediocre at best, and most of his numerous portraits, which he hated undertaking, are excruciatingly bad, pure bourgeois kitsch. (His rare self-portraits are, on the contrary, perhaps the most moving produced in the twentieth century.) So, while the curator of any exhibition always faces choices, in the case of Bonnard they are drastic. Fearless, Pagé, aided by her cocurators, François Michaud and Jacqueline Munck, had no qualms about getting rid of the exhaustivity principle: The show was not about presenting Bonnard’s whole, very long career from his Nabi debut to his glorious final years. Instead, Pagé asked not simply, What are good Bonnards? but What are his truly original works? What is his specific contribution to the art of the first half of the twentieth century? Everything else she dismissed as redundant. For example, only a few Nabi works were included to inaugurate the show, and they were completely uncharacteristic of the quietude usually associated with that school. They included the three very erotic large canvases of 1899–1900, L’Indolente (Indolence), Le Sommeil (Sleep), and L’Homme et la femme (which are unlike anything produced in French painting at that time) and the insane decorative panels done for Misia Sert in 1906–10. Right from the outset, then, these two groupings—erotic compositions and decorative panels—indicated we would not see the usual Bonnard but that his eccentricity would be played up.

After these series came the exhibition’s curatorial tour de force: the first return to Paris of all four major works bought by the pioneering Russian collector Ivan Morozov before the October Revolution. Here you realized that Bonnard was perhaps not simply eccentric but actually quite mad. Among the most striking of these sometimes huge canvases was L’Automne, Les Vendanges (Autumn, Fruit Harvest), 1912, in which a gigantic tree reminiscent of some Japanese anime monster occupies more than half the picture’s surface and completely dwarfs the figures barely perceptible beneath it. Another was the loony La Danse from 1912 (a response to Matisse?), where there is absolutely no realistic, coherent viewpoint and in which it is impossible to determine what the figures are actually doing, what the elements of the landscape are, and what their relationship is to one another. So much for the critical saw that Bonnard painted things as we perceive them!

Besides these three specific groupings, the exhibition consisted almost entirely of works dating from 1920 on, including Bonnard’s last painting, the small L’Amandier en fleur (Almond Tree in Bloom), which he finished on his deathbed in 1947. One of the show’s two strong suits was its selection of “bathtub” paintings (many more were included than in the Tate/MoMA show), in which Bonnard’s wife, Marthe, is shown eternally young, even though by the time he completed the last one in 1946 she had already died four years earlier at the age of seventy-three. The other major area of focus was the “garden seen from a window” paintings, beginning with the Minneapolis Art Institute’s Salle à manger à la campagne (Dining Room in the Country), 1913 (a very unusual painting for its early date, especially in view of the truckload of wholly unimaginative works Bonnard produced in the teens) and ending with the mesmerizing L’Atelier au mimosa (The Studio with Mimosa) of 1939–46 (sadly, its pendant from the Phillips Collection was missing). There were many unpopulated or barely peopled landscapes and garden views—all chosen, it seems, for their oneiric quality, as if to make sure people got that Bonnard was no Impressionist and in fact was much closer to Surrealism. In addition, there were some still lifes and interior scenes (including one that so intrigued Antonin Artaud that he copied it) and a small section devoted to Bonnard’s tiny vintage photographs. Finally, there was also a selection of the small sketches he made daily in his pocket appointment books, each accompanied by his record of the day’s weather (RAINY, SUNNY, WINDY), a practice he long maintained until his beloved Marthe stopped living her life mainly spent in the bathtub. All these masterful selections were impeccably installed in a show that was airy, well paced, and beautifully lit (evenly, without any showy spotlights). And although it comprised mainly series and each group was visible at a glance, individual works were still given enough space to be contemplated by themselves.

More than any other exhibition I’ve seen, this one made the whole cliché of Bonnard as the hedonic bard of bourgeois domesticity crumble at your feet. The French press, however—and here another reverse chauvinism of mine remained intact—did not get it at all.

Yve-Alain Bois is a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ, and a contributing editor of Artforum.