PRINT November 2019


Brassaï, Pierre Bonnard in His Studio at Le Cannet, 1946, gelatin silver print, 11 5⁄8 × 10". © Estate Brassaï–RMN-Grand Palais.

“THE MAIN SUBJECT IS THE SURFACE, which has its color, its laws, over and above the objects,” Pierre Bonnard declared in December 1935.

I don’t know what I expected to accomplish by hauling my ass to Copenhagen’s Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek museum for the second stop of “The Colour of Memory,” the first globe-trotting Bonnard survey in twenty years. Concentrating on the artist’s later solar work, the splendid exhibition, arranged chronologically, stumbled only with a series of not-uninteresting but nevertheless wince-inducing “soundscapes,” about which the less said the better.

Pierre Bonnard in the garden at Montval, France, ca. 1900–1901. Photo: Marthe de Méligny.

I tried to take some notes about the surfaces of various paintings—thinking of them as examples of textual bonnarding, a term Georges Rouault and others used to account for how the artist would perambulate: “Sometimes, having mixed one of his burning hues . . . and applied it to the work in progress, he would wander around the house from canvas to canvas, finding little places where he could insert what he had left over.” What gives? some might grumble. Why bother trying to bonnard Bonnard? There’s something intensely synesthetic about his work—or, rather, synesthesia would seem a fit figure for the discombobulation of “inside/outside,” “abstraction/-figuration,” and “now/memory” his work evidences, the humming and umami of his mark-making. He painted on large, unstretched swaths pinned to walls frequently decorated with the kind of flowery wallpaper Sister Parish would have considered bien joué.

Pierre Bonnard, Balcon à Vernonnet (Balcony at Vernonnet), 1920, oil on canvas, 39 5⁄8 × 31 1⁄8".

Balcon à Vernonnet (Balcony at Vernonnet), 1920. Garden a riot of dots, lashes, fuzzings, thin stripes, zigzags, pasty smudges, upward flings, curlicues, downward dashes—a more generous and expressive labannotation. Describing Bonnard’s brushwork, James Schuyler noted, in light of Jane Freilicher’s own marks and abrasions, “his affectionately smudged contiguity of shapes across the canvas.” An orange-salmon wrap or throw or scarf hangs over a balcony: Is it sunlight and shadow that skews its hue, or is it something in the weave of the fabric itself? “The Skylark” warned that most painters who try to pull off Bonnard’s “little touch” usually get the “effect of a sweater knit by loving hands at home.”

Pierre Bonnard, La salle à manger, Vernon (The Dining Room, Veron), ca. 1925, oil on canvas, 49 5⁄8 × 72 1⁄2".

La salle à manger, Vernon (The Dining Room, Vernon), ca. 1925. The look of amused pleasure on the woman’s face as she bows to the dog—whose nose just barely pokes above the edge of the table—about to reply to his query. Animal consciousness: Bonnard portrays the vivid range of exchanges between humans and their canine and feline companions. How the plaid of the woman’s housecoat is assembled of woven painted ribbons. Sky-blue X’s of the boy’s pajamas. His different mood, not necessarily darker, but when spying him across from the bare reflective glare of his face in the panes of the open portes-fenêtres, I wonder if he’s not learning a gentle early lesson in how attention will not always turn toward him.

Dans la salle de bain (In the Bathroom), ca. 1940.

Describe “white.” So much of Bonnard’s white isn’t (isn’t only) made from white paint.

Curve of porcelain tub in longish strokes of sharkskin and palest lavender.

Pierre Bonnard, Dans la salle de bain (In the Bathroom), ca. 1940, oil on canvas, 36 1⁄4 × 24".

Glass decanter above/on the darkest-Weimaraner-gray table is the “whitest” object in the painting, and it’s “clear.”

Some of the muntins seem to be just primed canvas. The fabric’s tooth shows through, delineated by light slate and bay-leaf green and thinned black around blue panes of glass. The top two are composed of up- and downstrokes; below, the longest ones are plumper, becoming thinner toward the bottom, bordered by both primer and black paint.

Bottom panes shift from blue to smudged blue to barely yellow to pussy willow.

Foot, tracing of a foot, peeking up out of bath-water almost a translucent version of the orange-yellow of the faucet.

Assorted cosmetic and perfume bottles on glass shelves reflected nearby on right side in a vanity-cum-stage-mirror situation underneath a lamp seemingly becoming a flacon—as if light had a scent—held to the wall by mallard-blue-and-lilac smoke. Bonnard wanted to “show what one sees on first entering a room, what the eye takes in at one glance; one sees everything, and at the same time nothing.” It’s as if he had supremed the everything-nothing of a Malevich white-on-white composition, paring away its abstract skin, pith, membranes, and seeds to rearrange its challenge (heart) in the representation of subtle surface differences of glassware, mirrors, windows, and bathwater.

All of this bonnarding now in light of the “white” of the blank Word doc this is written “on.”

Jacques Demy, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964, 35 mm, color, sound, 91 minutes. Geneviève Emery (Catherine Deneuve) and Guy Foucher (Nino Castelnuovo).

L’atelier au mimosa (The Studio with Mimosa), 1939–46. The wiping away or smoothing of strokes to make up the interior left wall around the window. Raspberries in cream pink with (moving right) electric gladiolas, vertical strokes of lime, cadmium, marigold, and paprika, emphasized with black (the curtain’s shadow?). Then, sudden chamber music for mimosa, scored; squiggles, pushes, turns, and dabs of forsythia and goldenrod with green shadows of white. Intensity of yellow like that of the café patio furniture in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul; snaps of it (Catherine Deneuve’s first little cardigan, Anne Vernon’s coat, lampshades, murals, pennants, rain slickers) punctuating Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, that belated ode to the Bonnardesque.

From behind the bannister—the thing to hold on to, which demarcates space, and which possesses all the colors of the palette of the painting itself—Bonnard positions the viewer to look down into his studio and out the window from above.

Francis Ponge wrote about the mimosa, its “hint of ludicrous histrionics” and Pierrot “costume of yellow polka dots,” about its relation to mimesis (and delight despite wartime), encouraging me to advance this late landscape (?) as a metacommentary on painting, on studio time, on studio light versus sunlight, on how the studio transmutes the world, “outside” becoming “inside” and vice versa, whether or not one always desires such transmutation and/or theatrics. “Art is not nature,” Bonnard stated.

Pierre Bonnard, L’atelier au mimosa (The Studio with Mimosa), 1939–46, oil on canvas, 50 1⁄4 × 50 1⁄4".

Ponge, from “Le mimosa,” written in Roanne, France, in 1941, published in 1946: “Mais ce n’est pas un arbuste lunaire: plutôt solaire, multisolaire . . .” (But it’s not a lunar bush: instead solar, multisolar . . . )

Derrida on Ponge’s text (in Richard Rand’s translation):

This operation of mimesis is yet another chance for mimosa, for its very name and genealogy (“difficult to find a better definition for the thing than this very name”). The thing is mimesis, it is inscribed in the etymon. Ponge cites it: “Mimosa [. . .] Etymology: see mimo-. Mimo-: said of plants which contract when touched. Mimic plants. Etym: from mimus, because those plants, when contracting, seem to represent the grimaces of a mime.”

The grimace of a mime in the figure holding/haunting the left corner: someone there/memory of someone there.

Does that passage mimosa the spatiotemporal complications/amusements—the inside/outside dissolve—of Bonnard’s art?

Bonnard wrote to Matisse, in late February or early March 1940, not about any kind of “room-space,” as T. J. Clark might put it, but about something like its opposite: “During my morning walks, I amuse myself by defining different conceptions of landscape—landscape as ‘space,’ intimate landscape, decorative landscape, etc.” He had long ago sponged away the grime of Beaux Arts academic doctrine, “by which drawing is ‘intellectual,’ and colour ‘sensuous,’ ” stating: “Drawing is sensation, colour is reasoning.”

Bruce Hainley is a contributing editor of Artforum.

Pierre Bonnard, Baigneurs à la fin du jour (Bathers at the End of the Day), ca. 1945, oil on canvas, 19 1⁄8 × 27 1⁄2".

IF THE “MAIN SUBJECT IS THE SURFACE, which has its color, its laws, over and above the objects,” then what of everything beneath Bonnard’s bathwater—legs and feet and chests and breasts and genitals—yet refracted in its surface? Baigneuses: The g drags a hand beneath the surface, to test the water’s temperature.

John Ashbery: “the gorgeous but difficult art of Bonnard.” Something lurking, ominous, despite dachshunds, flowers, glancing light, and dining-room tables ready for bon appétit. As when T. J. Clark writes that a “Bonnard late bath scene is as sweet and dumbfounding—as homeless and unearthly—as any Picasso monster on the beach.” Bonnard observes the wartime shadow on Monday, January 17, 1944, jotting in his pocket diary, “Celui qui chante n’est pas toujours heureux” (The one who sings is not always happy).

Marthe de Méligny in the garden at Montval, France, ca. 1900–1901. Photo: Pierre Bonnard.

The who beneath the surface is Bonnard’s partner, Marthe de Méligny, her many baths, hours, at home in Ma Roulette, their small villa outside Vernon in Normandy, as well as at Le Cannet and in various hotels and spas, in Uriage-les-Bains, Luxeuil-les-Bains, Saint-Gervais-les-Bains, Arcachon.

Pierre Bonnard, Femme au tub (Woman in Bathtub), 1924, oil on canvas, 51 1⁄8 × 31 7⁄8".

Regarding Bonnard’s bathers, Linda Nochlin invokes Jacques-Louis David’s La mort de Marat (The Death of Marat), 1793, his “resonant image of the martyred corpse . . . displayed to the Revolutionary public in the tub in which he was murdered,” going on to mention, in a bubble-like parenthetical, “that the reclusive Marthe, like Marat, suffered from some sort of malady which required her to spend long periods of time soaking in the bathtub.” Sources say the malady was “tubercular laryngitis,” for which hydrotherapy was a frequently prescribed palliative. Marthe was referred to as sauvage for her (supposed) “misanthropy,” her “‘pathological horror’ of any kind of social life.” Perhaps she was bored or in pain a lot of the time. In the small black-and-white nudes she and Bonnard took of each other with a Pocket Kodak—and in the possibility that his 1931 self-portrait, Le boxeur (The Boxer), manipulates the memory of her stance (eternal return) in Femme au tub (Woman in Bathtub), 1924—their identification with one another was . . . complicated, erotic.

Pierre Bonnard, Le boxeur (The Boxer), 1931, oil on canvas, 21 1⁄4 × 29 1⁄4".

Marthe/Marat. Nochlin never sounds the homophonic correspondence or tests the waters for how the comparison, the pairing, allows both bathers to emerge as figures for introspection, one proleptically sponging off the personal to freshen the political, the other considering whether revolution renews the importance of daily life or drowns it.

Lady Ashes again:

Pleasure—undiluted essence of pleasure—is a suspect commodity in modern art. To be acceptable it must seem to be at the service of a rigorous set of principles, as in the case of Matisse—though there are those who consider even Matisse too much of a hedonist. Further complicating the issue is the fact that Bonnard’s pleasure is really something else: to name it would be to see it vanish. One must not be misled by the floods of orange, mauve and mango-colored light. The joy is there, certainly, but it remains potential, modulated by something dark and serious. 

The taint of the “retrograde” hung around his reputation like the stench of yesterday’s cabbage, boiled in an unventilated kitchen, permeating everything.

David Rimanelli writes that a “collision of sensory overload and domestic creepiness, misery and decor, distinguishes Bonnard’s work.” He presses the point by invoking Jocelyn Wildenstein, whose “inspired convergence of feline fancy and vanguard hubris, her elegant transversal of the art/life divide puts even Orlan to shame”—noting that, in 1998, Wildenstein posed for Vanity Fair “in the ‘Bonnard room’ in the family’s Manhattan townhouse.”

As early as 1914, the artist was denounced as the “bearer of the taint of Impressionism in its degeneracy,” a mode seen to be “invertebrate” next to the stern analytics of Cubism. That taint of the “retrograde” hung around his reputation like the stench of yesterday’s cabbage, boiled in an unventilated kitchen, permeating everything. Combining Bonnard’s unruly critical reception with accounts of Marthe’s “wild” difficulty and his mistress-model Renée Monchaty’s suicide, you have all the makings of a melodrama. Cut to Jane Wyman’s face in Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows as her daughter weasels solace out of her, both of them lit by “stained glass” in her bedroom, as if the emotional-psychological tumult of satisfying her children’s needs or her own desire were a kaleidoscope of synaptic flames frozen. Or, given Bonnard’s hallucinogenic variegations, something shot on a stock even more intense than Technicolor.

Bonnard’s many paintings of the face of a woman thinking. Alert to cerebration in a surround stillness.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder: “In Douglas Sirk’s movies the women think. I haven’t noticed that with any other director. With any. Usually the women just react, do the things women do, and here they actually think. That’s something you’ve got to see. It’s wonderful to see a woman thinking. That gives you hope. Honest.”

Michel Serres: Bonnard’s “immensely tactful and tactile art does not turn the skin into a vulgar object to be seen, but rather into the feeling subject, a subject always active beneath the surface. The canvas is covered in canvases, veils pile up and veil only other veils, the leaves in the foliage overlap each other.”

Cf. Fairfield Porter: “His paintings are full of the tenderest tangencies.”

(Given tangency’s purring up to Bonnard’s belief in “beneficial ‘time-wasting,’”another essay might explore how Richard Hawkins, literalizing and expanding on such veiling [its conceptual aspects of collage], rendezvouses with Bonnard’s sensual, intellectual preoccupations: His cruising scenes do Bonnard’s bathtub in the bathhouse, tricking bonnarding into boner-arting.)

A subject always active beneath the surface. Bathing scene—surfaces beneath the surface—as metaphor for thinking.

Pierre Bonnard, Nature morte au bouquet de fleurs or La Vénus de Cyrène (Still Life with Bouquet of Flowers or Venus of Cyrene), 1930, oil on canvas, 23 5⁄8 × 51 1⁄4".

I’m tempted to say that his art is the consolation for, not the redemption of, the existential condition.

THERE IS SOMETHING in the name Bonnard. His signature becomes a peculiar event in those paintings containing books with legible titles (q.v. The Window, 1925; Venus of Cyrene, 1930). “Fénéon called me Bonnard très japonard,” the painter boasted to Hedy Hahnloser, one of his stalwart collectors. Some have played on his name’s “near homonym ‘bonheur,’” and, although la beauté n’est que la promesse du Bonnard (beauty is nothing other than the promise of Bonnard), I haven’t seen anyone call attention to the bon art (good art) signaled every time he signed a painting. Bon art is not quite the same as Beaux Arts. His rocky reputation ties into this. Matthew Gale’s essay in the catalogue for “The Colour of Memory” opens with Apollinaire’s qualifications about liking Bonnard’s paintings; it closes with a sampling of arguments “For and Against Bonnard.” Some considered him “unworldly.” His first solo exhibition in 1896, Camille Pissarro wrote, was a “complete fiasco.” Jean Paulhan found his painting “delightful” but dismissed him as one “who did not raise any questions.” Christian Zervos’s dickish review in Cahiers d’Art of the artist’s first posthumous retrospective questioned his entire enterprise under the headline “Pierre Bonnard est-il un grand peintre?” (Is Pierre Bonnard a Great Painter?). Matisse, in a large cursive hand, undid the critic’s cancellation with a large “Oui!” In a letter to Zervos, le maître was severe: “I cannot understand that you went after Bonnard. . . . I know Bonnard, I’ve been watching him for half a century. A fellow traveler on the path. I was never able to discover the full depth of his expression, although it is constructed from materials I know very well.” The marks, dabs, colors, labor, doubt, studio time, life—the materials of making bon art.

Pierre Bonnard, La fenêtre (The Window), 1925, oil on canvas, 42 3⁄4 × 34 7⁄8".

Difficult to know all that’s going on in artists’ heads when they’re at work making something. Much of it isn’t even “them,” and yet, of course, it very much is, too.

In W. H. Auden’s not-haphazardly-named poem “Musée des Beaux Arts” (“not haphazardly” because although it coordinates around Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, ca. 1555, the poet’s title suggests it’s “about” a larger conundrum of or in the arts and its institutions), “everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster.” Everything, a colleague reminded me, not everyone—as if this were an existential condition. The “dogs go on with their doggy life.” Commerce, pleasure, too, continue, leisurely: “the expensive delicate ship that must have seen / Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, / Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.”

Bonnard survived two horrific world wars, thirty years with an ill partner whom many found, at best, challenging, and the grief and/or guilt of a muse’s suicide, yet his multisolar paintings, some made over the course of years, others more quickly, only became—have only become (what is the tense of his painting? Present perfect? What is the tense of dreaming?)bolder, more incandescent. I’m tempted to say that his art is a consolation for, not the redemption of, the PTSD of existing. Art’s (necessary) selfishness—its turning away from or negotiating with the facts of the world’s events/nonevents and the facts of its own events/nonevents—might be why it continues to fascinate. Which means the appearance of a “political” or “radical” or “engagé” response is often illusory, counterfactual. Difficult to know all that’s going on in artists’ heads when they’re at work making something. Much of it isn’t even “them,” and yet, of course, it very much is, too. Celui qui chante n’est pas toujours heureux.

In the late, audacious Baigneurs à la fin du jour (Bathers at the End of the Day), ca. 1945, each small being seems to be on fire, burning up, aflame in the marine blue-green at sundown. Even a gull takes on the crepuscular blaze. Not only la fin du jour, it could be a foreshadowing of the end of days. Or just a vision of icy Mediterranean relief. Momentary armistice.

Bruce Hainley is a contributing editor of Artforum.