The art historian John Fitzgibbon used to tell a joke worth repeating. When the conversation turned to Post-Impressionism, and particularly to the turn-of–the-last-century work of Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, Edouard Vuillard and Felix Vallotton, he would remind listeners that those artists thought themselves to be members of a group called The Nabis, which John pretended was an abbreviation of the word cannabis. He often convinced people that this was fact before admitting his playful ruse. Still, it’s easy to see why people fell for it. Pierre Bonnard: Painting Arcadia, a stupendous exhibit at the Palace of the Legion of Honor, shows, quite clearly, that Bonnard was high, and a prolonged look at his paintings can have a similar effect on viewers.
historical literature of any of the Nabis being influenced by Vincent Van Gogh, and it is easy to see why. Had it not been for the timely intervention of the critic Albert Aurier in 1890, Van Gogh’s work might have disappeared into art historical obscurity, and in any event, it did not find much of an audience until the early 1920s.
Bonnard lived northwest of Paris near Giverny from 1912 to 1926, after which he moved to La Cannat, in the sunny southeast of France near Cannes. Prior to that move he made a point of visiting the by-then senior Claude Monet on a regular basis. This association exerted a pivotal influence on Bonnard’s development, and it is no coincidence that the younger artist’s move south corresponded with the year of Monet’s death. Even more
pivotal was Bonnard’s association with Marthe Bourgine (also known as Marthe de Miligny), who started mod-eling for him in 1893, and who would eventually become his wife, lifelong companion and chronically depressed muse. At the time of their meeting Bonnard was already married to (or by some accounts, living with) Renée Moncharty who took her own life in 1925, and in so doing, cast a long shadow of guilt and remorse over the remaining years that Bonnard and Marthe shared. I am surprised that no one has done a screenplay about this art historical love triangle, but it does beget a well-circulated conjecture about the complex nature of the artist’s work.
The thesis? Bonnard’s famous banquets of chromatic delight stemmed from a need for a kind of self-medication to counter and compensate for the guilt and sadness that he felt about the state of his own life and its relation to the general condition of Europe after the first world war (including the Russian revolution of 1917 and the deadly influenza epidemic of 1920), not to mention the second world war and its immediate aftermath. The land of brilliant, luminescent color was Bonnard’s happy place, and he went there often because he had good reason to do so.
There is a trio of self-portraits that are worthy of note, especially the one titled The Boxer (Portrait of the Artist) from 1931. Here we see the 64-year-old artist examining himself as if he were looking in a bathroom mirror, feebly raising his arms in what appears to be the most pathetic display of pugilism in the history of modernist painting. The background is bright yellow suffused with pink, and those colors are picked up in the way that he paints his shirtless, pale and somewhat feeble torso. The face sports much richer color, but it also fluctuates rather oddly between a described topography and a quick caricature. Even though Bonnard wore glasses on a regular basis, The Boxer shows him without them, and the squint of his face speaks volumes about his attempt to get a bead on an elusive clarity of vision.
Two paintings of a white cat catch the eye: one from 1891 showing the eponymous feline perched high on elongated legs, and the other, Woman with Cat (The Demanding Cat) from 1912, showing what might be the same animal moving in on Moncharty’s lunch of fish soup; it’s set atop a bright yellow table cloth. Both works are small and intimate, and each bespeaks the recognition of the simple delights of domestic moments rendered in an atmosphere perfumed with nostalgic sweetness. The capture of such moments seemed to be Bonnard’s most favored subject, and he returned to it again and again throughout the five decades of his career. In the best of them, such as Reading the Newspaper (1912) or Evening by the Lamp (1921), we see an exquisite balance of nostalgia (read: the recognition of the past as being more vivid than the present) and the luxurious sumptuousness of present tense light and atmosphere, where color and illumination co-mingle in the register of delight.
It should go without saying that Bonnard is best known for the works that he painted of either Reneé or Marthe — before, after or during bathing. In Nude in an Interior (1914), the standing figure is partially masked by a wall separating the bathing space from the bedroom. In this tightly conceived composition, we see six levels of planar space advancing and receding around the figure, with brilliant yellow-oranges, aquas and purples establishing one set of locations; they vivify the normal spatial positions implied by the relationships of the planes, all of which are perfectly parallel to the picture plane. In Nude in the Bathtub and The Bath (both 1925), we see Marthe (or possibly Reneé) partially submerged, her body looking almost lifeless in contrast to the shimmering light of the bathwater and the reflective tiling of the room. Here, she does not convey any of the joy of being a newlywed. Rather, she seems to find a special solace from being newly wed in the bath, which was her own happy place insofar as her crippling depression was concerned. In many of Bonnard’s paintings, the viewer can detect a shadow of uneasy sadness lurking amidst spaces of charm and elegance, and the effect can be unsettling. On the other hand, some paintings, such as the large The Brothers Bernheim-Jeune (1920), we see a moment of happy confidence amidst agreeable comfort in its portrayal of two men of business attending to the details of their far-flung correspondence.
Bonnard’s landscape works rarely receive the level of commentary that his interiors and bath scenes, but in the context of Painting Arcadia, his landscape works look dazzling. Some of these are small, including the early Untitled work from 1905. Others are quite large. Perhaps the most impressive of these is The Abduction of Europa (1919), where two small figures are placed in the foreground ahead of a stunning bright blue ocean set beneath a sky illuminated by a fiery sun. Another work titled Pastoral Symphony (1920) is another eye catcher, and when we note that it was painted during the final years of the first world war, we cannot help but see the painting as a hope for the return to more peaceful pursuits.
Bonnard’s chromaticism is more synaesthetic than that Matisse’s; that is, more able (by way of inference and suggestion) to incorporate multiple sensory registers that reach beyond the purely visual. As such, they infer a more sophisticated awareness of the nature of experience, one that recognizes that the full understanding of experience is more than sensation, that it also has elements of logic and desire integrated within it. This assertion is compatible with some recent philosophical work being done by the likes of Mohan Matthen and Peter Ross, who have argued that that pleasure runs a gamut from simple to complex, and that complex pleasure is as much a mode of knowledge as it is a mode of enjoyment.