Washington, DC

“Pierre Bonnard: The Late Paintings”

Pierre Bonnard is an anomaly, a Modern artist from the classical period of Modernism who neither initiated nor participated in such movements as Fauvism, Cubism, Expressionism, or Surrealism. His absence from the roll calls of the avant-garde has long been held against him, particularly in America, where membership in a movement is as eagerly sought and as highly prized as election to the Académie in 19th-century France. Bonnard has paid for his individualism; today, he is one of the most underrated artists of the 20th century. This exhibition covered Bonnard’s career from 1900 (he was 33 when the century started) until 1947, the year he died. By designating these years as Bonnard’s “late period,” the show attempted to recontextualize the paintings he did after 1900. Until now, too much attention has been paid to his early poster designs, to his Nabis period when he was influenced by Gauguin, and to his friendships with Edouard Vuillard and the elderly Claude Monet, as if everything he did after 1900 were a rehash of his youth or an isolated example of late Impressionism. The formalists estimation of Bonnard is that he is a charming painter of sweet domestic scenes. Nothing could be further from the truth.

During Bonnard’s late period three distinct themes emerge: the female nude in a bathtub or at her toilette, the self-portrait, and the interior with an open window framing a lush, vibrant landscape. What these paintings convey is a fragmented reality, an extreme isolation, and a muffled sadness. Devices such as mirrors and windows, and innovations such as severely angled views, particularly in the paintings of a woman in a bathtub, are linked to psychological and phenomenological insights. The radical compositions in which the space is flattened to such a degree that it is inaccessible, with the tub hovering in the center of the canvas like a halo surrounding the self-absorbed female figure, should suggest the irreparable division that Bonnard felt separated his body from his eyes. His deeply felt awareness of this dichotomy flows through the paintings like brightly colored lava. Clearly, he understood his male neuroses—his urges to possess and to idealize.

Bonnard’s knowledge of unquenchable desire and the impossibility of possession seems to have been set in motion by his relationship to Marthe Boursin, whom he met in 1893. She became his model and life-long companion, and she reappears in his paintings, always around the same age as when he first met her. His idealization of her both offsets and underscores her remoteness. By all accounts Boursin was a neurotic woman who would spend hours in the bathtub each day. Bonnard’s paintings are a complex response to an equally complex, obsessive ritual.

Bonnard stands apart from Modernist currents in a number of ways. He never turns his pain and isolation into a badge. Unlike Picasso or Matisse, he does not attempt to possess his model through willful stylization of her form. Nor does heuse painting as a stand-in for revenge. His images of a woman have a particular relevance in today’s dialogue between the sexes.

In Le Boxeur, 1931, the artist is bare-chested as he faces the mirror, his fists clenched and raised, his head lowered in an aggressive stance. Bonnard was at war with himself, and his strongest paintings are the result of a stalemate between lush, inviting color and claustrophobic space. It is this ability to express his feelings of both power and powerlessness that makes him a truly Modern artist.

John Yau