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Pierre Bonnard @ Palace of the Legion of Honor

by Mark Van Proyen
Nude in an Interior, 1912-14, oil on canvas

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.  

Just what Bonnard might have been high on might be a matter of conjecture, and prolonged scrutiny of the 66 works on view fails to decide the issue. Was it absinthe? That’s my second best guess, but my first guess is that he was high on color itself.  While his career starts well after the Impressionists’ Societe Anonyme had their last exhibition as a group in 1886, he continued their investigations into the chromatic possibilities of paint while also elaborating upon them, or, from other points of view, subtracting from them, or both. If we can say that Divisionist artists such as Georges Seurat took Impressionist color in the direction of optical science, then it is equally fair to say that Bonnard and his fellow Nabis took it in the opposite direction, toward a kind of chromatic mysticism.  Like Paul Gauguin, he created a temporary and uneasy fusion of Impressionism and Symbolism, those being the two somewhat opposed streams of aspiration that fed the entire history of Modernist and avant-garde painting.  
In all, the short-lived group that called themselves The Nabis consisted of about a dozen artists, so named because they saw themselves as prophets, nabi being a rough derivation of the Hebrew word navi.  At the time of their self-christening, Gauguin, the artist to whom they most looked to for inspiration, had not yet decamped for Tahiti.  They were also influenced by and aligned with the styles of Art Nouveau and Jugendstil, movements that, respectively, marked the belle epochs in Paris and Vienna.  They also had a special enthusiasm for Japanese woodblock prints, having seen the exhibition titled La Gravure Japonaise at the Ecole de Beaux-Arts in the Spring of 1890.  The group exhibited together 13 times between 1891 and 1996, after which they went their own ways, much as the Impressionists did during the previous decade.  There is no mention in the art

Woman with Cat (or the Demanding Cat), oil on canvas, 30 3/4 x 30 1/2

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.

Pierre Bonnard: Painting Arcadia was organized by Guy Cogeval and Issabel Cahn for the Museé d’Orsay in Paris, where it greeted viewers last year, before traveling on to Madrid and then arriving at its final destination, San Francisco.  It is not organized chronologically.  Instead, it’s presented in a cluster of rooms that correspond to the subjects that Bonnard favored throughout his career.  It shows Bonnard as a complex artist of many aspects, some of which are hard to take, for example, the large Art Nouveau murals, which are the last things we see upon exiting the exhibition. These works were excluded from the 1998 Bonnard retrospective organized by the Tate Gallery, and also from the 2009 exhibition titled Bonnard: The Late Interiors held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  And for good reason because, let’s face it, these are exercises in commercial design, and although they literalize Maurice Denis’ famous dictum — that painting is nothing more than an arrangement of colors on a flat surface — they give us little more than the yeoman’s effort of a young artist trying to earn a living from his craft by giving his clients what they thought they wanted.

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

The Abduction of Europa, 1919, oil on canvas, 46 1/4 x 60 1/4"


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.

The Boxer (Portrait of the Artist), 1931, oil on canvas, 21 1/4" x 29 1/4"

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.

Evening by the Lamp, 1921, oil on canvas, 29 x 34 3/4"

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.        

Pastoral Symphony, 1916-20, oil on canvas, 51 1/8 x 63"


Also included in this exhibition is a collection of a dozen tiny photographs of or by the artist, suggesting that the curatorial aim of this particular exhibition was to emphasize the breadth of Bonnard’s interests, rather than linger over the high points emphasized in previous exhibitions. That said, we should also note that Painting Arcadia does not include any examples of Bonnard’s work in drawing or printmaking apart from the above-mentioned examples of his poster design. Not every work included here measures up to the standard set by his best work, and some fall far short, but there are more than enough that do match that standard to make for a rare and satisfying viewing experience.          
The emphasis on Bonnard’s artistic breadth seems intended to correct the record established by the previous exhibitions. To a certain extent this emphasis can be taken as the curatorial raison d'etre behind Painting Arcadia — a way of saving the complexity of Bonnard’s career from the procrustean pigeonhole of “master colorist” that it has occupied for the past seven decades.  But I like the master colorist version better because it places Bonnard in a more direct competition with Matisse, which is a matter worth some reflecting upon.  Ever since Clement Greenberg reviewed Bonnard’s first North American exhibition in 1947, the idea of a Bonnard-Matisse competition has been on the table, and while it may not matter much who can be declared the winner, elaborating upon the nature and ramifications of their differences can be instructive.
The Bathtub or The Bath, 1925, oil on canvas, 37 7/8  x 47 1/2"
Naturally, Greenberg was on the side of Matisse, no doubt owing to the relatively flat articulations of his chromaglyphic style.   And it comes as no surprise that Matisse’s approach to color has dominated the subsequent history of chromatic painting that runs from Ellsworth Kelly to Andy Warhol to Elizabeth Murray and beyond to include the large majority of artists associated with the resurgence of abstract painting since 2007.
But it may also be that the projective flatness that Greenberg advocated was overrated.  And that brings us back to a fresh look at the way that Bonnard was able to use the fluctuating warm and cool radiances of the color spectrum to model the shifts of volumetric shape, subtly adjusted in relation to fleeting ambient illumination.  The result was a de-emphasis on projective flatness and a fresh re-emphasis on elements of painting that Richard Wollheim called “seeing-in” and “expressive perception” – those being shorthand terms for illusionistic and affective representation.
What Bonnard contributes to this conversation is the idea that illusionism, understood as a kind of highly refined chromagraphy, can convey a compelling and distinctly visual allusionism.  It’s as if his paintings were registering changes of temperatures (including emotional temperatures) in the scenes they depict, rather than how they might passively appear to the photographically indoctrinated eye.  Put another way, we can say that

Man and a Woman, 1900, oil on canvas, 45 1/2 x 28 1/2"

 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.

What follows from this rumination is a return to another idea ascribed to Greenberg, the so-called “the cuisine of painting,” which in the case of Bonnard’s best work, was one of rich flavors comingled in both stunning and subtle combination. It seems to me that younger painters in search fresh possibilities might want to revisit the idea of embracing a richer and more complex painterly cuisine that would help emphasize the things that painting can do that photography cannot, rather than continue to mimic the brittle look of electronic and graphic media as a post-Pop lingua franca.
Of course, there are points of legitimate contention within this formulation. Bay Area Figurative painters also looked back at Matisse and Bonnard, and they thought that their work was far too fussy and far too saturated in the perfumes of over-refined cuisine to be of much interest to their self-styled Americaness, drenched as it was in nicotine, whisky and Bay City paint.  Point taken, but a counterpoint might suggest that the later artists contented themselves with being ham-fisted short-order cooks when a much richer banquet of painterly possibilities lay before them.  It may be that one needs to be born into the traditions of high cuisine to appreciate the kind of patience and discrimination that they are based on.  But if one is not so born, there is always the siren song of new things or the happy rediscovery of things not so new.  Thus, Bonnard’s rich and highly refined chromatic approach to painting may be the one that has the most potential for the immediate future.
“Pierre Bonnard: Painting Arcadia” @ Palace of the Legion of Honor through May 15, 2016. 
About the Author:
Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries focus on satirizing the tragic consequences of blind faith placed in economies of narcissistic reward.  Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America.  His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010).  To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak's December 9, 2014 interview, published on Broke Ass Stuart's Goddamn Website.     

5 Responses to “Pierre Bonnard @ Palace of the Legion of Honor”

  1. Sam Cornish says:

    Hello, I enjoyed this review. Gary Wragg is a good example of an abstract painter drawn to complexity and influenced in his approach to it by Bonnard. You can see examples of his work on his website I edited a 2 volume publication on his paintings, in 2014. Sam Cornish

  2. connie steiner says:

    I enjoyed reading your review, and looking at the beautiful paintings you posted. Especially interesting were your remarks on the complexity of Bonnard’s color, how it incorporates more than strictly visual sensation.

    Your information about Marthe and Renee Monchaty, however, is incorrect.
    Marthe met Bonnard when she was in her teens and he a young unmarried and otherwise unattached man. They had been living together for many years before he met Renee, a woman much younger than Marthe. Bonnard fell in love and wanted to marry her, but his ties to Marthe proved too strong. He married Marthe instead, and Renee committed suicide. See article by Barry Schwabsky,The Nation, April 20, 2009, Disquieting and Enraptured: On Pierre Bonnard.

    • David Roth says:

      Mark Van Proyen says his account of the relationship hinges on “how 19th century french law interpreted living together,” adding that his information comes from the museum’s wall text.

  3. Satri Pencak says:

    This is a great review Mark, deeply insightful. Thanks for posting it David.

  4. Tracy Grubbs says:

    Thank you for this review! As a painter and fan of Bonnard’s I found new and important visual and art historical insights in your writing. I appreciate the call to partake from a “banquet of richer and more complex painterly cuisine.” Painting is a form of knowledge and perception that the world needs (perhaps more than ever) as we wade through the onslaught of the quick, the flat and digital.


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