Longing & Loss: Pierre Bonnard at MOMA

By O'Donovan, Leo J. | Commonweal, September 25, 1998 | Go to article overview

Longing & Loss: Pierre Bonnard at MOMA


O'Donovan, Leo J., Commonweal


When New York's Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) presented its first exhibition of Pierre Bonnard in 1948, just a year after the artist's death, the catalogue described him as an artist who "wished to paint only happy paintings." The description was ready to hand, what with the artist's shimmering landscapes, warm interiors, gorgeous still lifes, and sensuous nudes. Bonnard's opaline, deliquescent palette seemed to have carried Impressionism into the twentieth century and on, almost to its midpoint.

But there were critics as well. Soon after Bonnard's death, Christian Zervos, writing for Cahiers d'Art, echoed Picasso's hostile views in an article titled "Is Pierre Bonnard a Great Painter?" (Matisse angrily wrote over his own copy, "Yes. I certify that Pierre Bonnard is a great painter.") Even more important, the artist's precise intentions and range of achievement remained puzzling to critics and public alike.

Now a dazzling show at MOMA, first presented in a somewhat larger and different format at the Tate Gallery in London, sets out to set the record straight. Curated by Sarah Whitfield at the Tate and by John Elderfield at MOMA, this is not the "modern master" retrospective accorded to Picasso or Matisse, Mondrian or Miro. But it will surely go far toward establishing that Bonnard is indeed a great painter, if a highly unusual and particular one. As a visual experience, it is simply unforgettable. ("Bonnard" will remain at MOMA through October 13. Its catalogue [Bonnard, Abrams, $60, 270 pp.], with lavish reproductions of the eighty works shown in New York as well as others from London, is edited by Whitfield and contains essays by her and Elderfield.)

Born in the suburbs of Paris in 1867, Bonnard attended school there, spending holidays with his family at his paternal grandfather's house in the village of Le Grand-Lemps. He enrolled in both the Faculty of Law and the Academie Julian in Paris, where he met a group of young painters who came under the influence of Paul Gauguin. Giving themselves the name Nabis (Hebrew for prophet), they espoused a purely pictorial, decorative style. Bonnard's Intimacy (1891) is a perfect small example of the flat, all-over, coloristically adventurous approach he took as a young artist; he depicted his sister and brother-in-law smoking together in a highly compressed space, out of which the artist's own clay pipe and hand only gradually emerge for the viewer's eye. The Croquet Game, a year later, is a larger and still more impressive example. It presents the reverie of a family afternoon in which greens, browns, and gold suffuse a lawn where pattern has become more important than perspective. The intimisme of the 1890s eventually included over fifty pictures of the artist's family: "The artist who paints the emotions creates an enclosed world, the picture," Bonnard said late in his life. "One may imagine such an artist spending a great deal of time doing nothing but looking around himself and inside himself."

It was during the 1890s that the pivotal event of Bonnard's personal life occurred, his meeting Maria Boursin on a Paris street in 1893. They eventually married in 1925, after almost thirty years together. "Marthe" gradually appears in more and more paintings, such as the apparently erotic nudes Indolence (1898) and Siesta (1900), and eventually figures in over 380 of Bonnard's works.

When one comes upon Man and Woman (1900), the plot thickens. Here a man (the artist) and a woman (Marthe) are presented on either side of the vertical canvas, shortly after intercourse. He stands naked and seems to be reaching for something like a bathrobe. Likewise naked, she sits on the bed, fondling one of two kittens. Between them, and running almost the entire height of the picture, is a screen which represents a seemingly insuperable barrier - or, perhaps, as one critic has observed, the tree in the garden under which Adam and Eve sinned. This puzzling, imperfect, poignant work is an interpretive key for all that follows: The supposed hedonist who painted the savor of sensuous intimacy was in fact always somehow estranged from the object of desire. …

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