Pierre Bonnard

Among my feelings after first seeing this Bonnard retrospective was an undercurrent of disappointment. The painter had always worked for me before, with past exhibitions and single canvases becoming trophies in the mind awarded to oneself as much as to the artist. What was to blame? Was it the sludge color on some of the walls, the indifferent light of a dull March morning, the crowds? Or was it the chronological gaps (why only four works between 1901 and 1912?) and the presence of certain paintings that seemed otiose or below par? Was it some distaste for the later paintings’ relentless embrace of the domestic, the artist’s fussy interiors infested by cats and that maddening dachshund, the remnants of meals, so much fruit? Irritation with the overpowering lassitude of Marthe Bonnard, culminating in those aquatic corpses? This memorial to French bourgeois life, stuffy with sleepy pears, feline smells, and stealing bathroom odors, became both cloying and claustrophobic.

Determined to find out what had gone wrong, I went again. After an uncertain start—the early, pre-1900 work was almost too succinctly represented—gradually Bonnard began to flower. Here was that precise awkwardness of drawing familiar from earlier encounters, the visual malice of his compositions, objects eaten by light, those magnificent windows set up like altars to the Côte d’Azur. Here again was that reckless endeavor to make fantasy and material one, to render indivisible an elusive content and style. But, more sensational, for I had only apprehended this before in a few individual works, here was a vision of pervasive and daunting melancholy.

Nothing Bonnard painted was self-consciously melancholic; there is no obvious delineament of sadness. In fact, every element of his art suggests the opposite: nobody works, suffers, or grows old (save the artist himself); Marthe Bonnard grooms her lithe figure; the table is set; life continues against a backdrop of seething garden heat; in the distance, the sea remains a grand possibility. However, in the last room of the show—unlike the others, parsimoniously hung—were five chilling paintings: three of Marthe, full-length in the bath, and two late self-portraits painted from the artist’s reflection in the bathroom mirror. After all the visions of purring contentment, the bleakness of these last paintings (ca. 1936–46), in spite of their compacted color, was nothing short of a revelation. The impact of this final room began to seep into all the previously experienced hedonism: Bonnard’s home, Le Bosquet, became a morgue, its furnishings vessels of memory, the landscape through the windows unattainable, and the increasingly withdrawn and neurotic Marthe, like Dickens’ Miss Havisham, cruelly suspended in time.

Of course, Bonnard’s acute optical perceptions were always subjected to a cooling intelligence in works that, as he himself said of Titian, “were conceived according to his initial idea of them.” He is always contrived; the chose vue was never enough; constantly he armed himself against the obvious seductions of a motif, chiefly by working away from it through the use of sketches (so that Le Bosquet subjects, for example, could be painted in a hotel room in Deauville) and through his memory of the sensation of looking. In The Dining Room in the Country, we see from a pencil study that the painting, with its warm, pervasive tristesse, began as a geometrical balancing act between several verticals and a scatter of shorter horizontals. The human element came later—the cats, the pensive women, the just discernible jeune fille en fleur through the door, beyond the terrace. As much by pictorial geometry as by a warm/cool interlacing of memories, Bonnard miraculously transports us from foreground platters of burnished fruit to a far-distant haze. A vase of flowers echoes the tree outside; the woman’s curved shoulders, the bush on the grass; the violet-blue tablecloth, the tones of the early evening sky. All these correspondences of rhythm, hue, and value, it might be objected, arc stock-in-trade devices of painters enamored of depicting interior-cum-exterior subjects. But Bonnard’s flickering strategy of advance and retreat in both pictorial and depicted space makes of such realities a dreamlike continuum, as though the whole scene emanated from the woman’s head.

The Dining Room in the Country is dated 1913, a pivotal year in Bonnard’s development. It conveys, for the first time, the full-blown flavor of the mature painter. Though the early Nabi period, when he was regarded as le plus japonais of the new generation, contains most of the themes—still life, figures grouped around tables, single women in interiors—that continued to preoccupy him, from ca. 1913–14 he abandoned lamplit interiors (save for the Tate’s The Table, 1925), abandoned street scenes, and gradually gave up multifigure, outdoor compositions (e.g., The Croquet Game, 1892). Sexually explicit paintings such as Man and Woman, 1900, and La Sieste, 1900, disappear; everyday intimacy replaces erotic congress; busy scenes of an extended family are overtaken by the slower rhythms of married life with its fortuitous encounters (“Oh, you’re in here,” he seems to say, opening the dining-room door). The immense sociability of the young Bonnard and his active role in Parisian intellectual life, his friendships with Toulouse-Lautrec, Odilon Redon, Maurice Ravel, Alfred Jarry, his work in the theater and as an applied designer—all this drains away. Bonnard withdraws not from the world but from that particular one to find, under new vows, all he needs “about the house.” Yet for all that has been discarded, the Nabi experience remains in the insistent decorative conceptions whereby argumentative compositions unfold like the hinged panels of a standing screen; in the flattening of figures into silhouettes, light dissolving or sharpening their contours; in the patterned cloths and floors rising up to the picture plane. Still, there are spectacular changes. Perhaps the most surprising is the off-loading of dark, upholstered color; subfusc Paris apartments and the cool, imagined light of his mythological paintings arc replaced by vibrant southern light with which shadows must struggle to gain a formal equality. Color maintains a constant flux of fertility and decay, heightening the melancholy.

The witty, allusive Bonnard who raises an understated smile in several of the early paintings (look at the snoring dog in La Sieste, unconcernedly echoing the contour of his mistress’ postcoital back) becomes the anxious Bonnard for whom pictorial wit has its dolorous counterpart. Again, the earliest of the full-length bathtub paintings in the show, Nude in the Bath, 1925, in which Marthe’s soaking legs course up one side of the canvas and Bonnard’s figure (head cropped at the top) runs down the other, has a playfulness in its conception, like a song by Poulenc. In the later ones from the series, with their grave framework, Bonnard becomes the uxorious recorder of mortality. Marthe’s submerged body lies weightless as her mind drifts from its mooring of facts, the scene suffused in the glints and moistness of the surrounding tiles. Here there is no human longing or aspiration such as that which touches earlier works (most memorably in The Palm, 1915, a magisterial painting not, alas, in the exhibition). Death pads into the room as imperceptibly as the water turns cold.

The exhibition has been carefully selected by Sarah Whitfield to confirm this elegiac element in Bonnard (surely connected with the end of the European tradition of the femme à sa toilette). At the same time it shows his reinvention of a painterly language that does not deny its origins in the Parisian fin-de-siècle and that enters triumphantly into twentieth-century practice. Whitfield’s catalogue essay is a lucid and tender introduction. John Elderfield’s dense commentary, if one has a dictionary of optics at hand, would surely be rewarding. It continues the critical reappraisal of Bonnard as a complex, modern painter, a move more or less begun by Jean Clair in his masterly 1984 essay “The Adventures of the Optic Nerve” (though Patrick Heron’s 1955 “Pierre Bonnard and Abstraction” remains crucial).

Most of Bonnard’s recognized masterpieces are in the show, although, along with The Palm, I regret the absence of The Terrace at Vernon, 1928, with its fusion of the contemporary and the bucolic, and also the beautiful bathroom interior in the Yale University Art Gallery collection, more disquieting in its vertiginous layout than the Museum of Modern Art’s Bathroom from 1932, which was included in the show. One or two works seemed unnecessary—especially the hideous Bath Mitten, 1942, in which the figure of the nude woman has the color and texture of a breaded scallop looking longingly at the frying pan—and perhaps a still life or two would not have been missed. But overall, the exhibition is the most coherent opportunity so far to gauge the sumptuous complexity of Bonnard’s achievement.

Richard Shone, an associate editor at The Burlington Magazine, is a frequent contributor to Artforum.