By using this website you agree to our Cookie policy
We hope you enjoy this free article. Subscribe to the digital edition today and you can receive articles, book and exhibition reviews for the current year, plus access to the past five year's content free.
Subscribe today

August 2015

Vol. 157 / No. 1349

Pierre Bonnard. Paris

Reviewed by Sarah Whitfield



Bonnard has never settled easily into the history of twentieth-century painting. The tendency among critics has been to place him slightly apart from other recognised artists of his own time, even though for generations of painters – from Matisse to Ellsworth Kelly – he continues to occupy an unassailable position. Bonnard’s early affiliation with the self-styled Nabis group of painters, and with those other artists and writers of the 1880s and early 1890s dedicated to finding a new purpose for art through ‘decoration’, may have contributed to this critical hesitancy. The fact that the Nabi concept of ‘decoration’ was by no means as simple as the word implies (especially in English) presents a problem of understanding which is further compounded by the fate met by so many of their grand designs.1 Murals or paintings designed for domestic interiors have little guarantee of permanence, so it is not ­surprising that although many of the schemes designed by Bonnard and his friends are extant they are condemned forever to be seen out of context. This presents a choice for the curator of a Bonnard exhibition. Should Bonnard be seen primarily as an easel painter, as fully engaged in the twentieth century as Matisse or Picasso? In which case these decorations, dislodged from their original period settings, tend to muddle the story. Or should the artist be seen as a painter who began, and to some extent remained, a painter immersed in the Nabi pursuit of the ‘decorative’?

Guy Cogeval, the curator of the Musée d’Orsay’s Pierre Bonnard Peindre L’Arcadie (closed 19th July; touring to Madrid and San Francisco),2 has steered a judicious course between the two options, opening the exhibition with a wall hung with four magnificent garden paintings, two of which form a diptych, Enfants jouant avec une chèvre and La Cueillette des pommes of c.1899 (cat. nos.39 and 40; Pola Museum of Art, Kanagawa; Fig.47). Another scene of children picking apples, La Cueillette de pommes, also of c.1899 (no.37; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond), was shown alongside the earliest work in the group, Le Grand Jardin of 1895 (no.38; Musée d’Orsay). All four works show the young Bonnard at his most luxuriant and most subtle. The works are on canvas but their allusions to the art of tapestry are unmistakable, as is the light-hearted reversal of the eighteenth-century conceit of tapestry imitating painting. Here too, in the way emptiness is expressed through its opposite, is the first intimation of Bonnard’s affinity with the poetry of Mallarmé. These enclosed orchards and meadows saturated in the strong greens of Flemish tapestries hover between exterior and interior, imagination and reality, memory and the everyday.

Next comes one of Bonnard’s most disquieting themes, domesticity. Cogeval touches on the unease that pervades these paintings by placing L’Homme et la femme of 1900 (no.57; Fig.49) with other interiors ranging from Déjeuner sous la lampe (no.43; 1898; Musée d’Orsay) to La Table du travail (no.48; 1926–37; National Gallery of Art, Washington). L’Homme et la femme shows a rumpled bed on which the artist’s lover Maria Boursin (later Marthe Bonnard) sits stroking a cat, while on the other side of a tall screen dividing the room (and the painting) stands a shadowed Bonnard, full length and naked. Not until Lucian Freud would another painter, other than possibly Sickert, reflect so ambiguously on the nature of intimacy. (The way Bonnard’s interiors examine the veiled nature of human awareness is one of his great strengths). The span of time covered by the works in this room demonstrates the relaxed attitude Cogeval adopts towards chronology, an approach that makes sense given Bonnard’s habit of revisiting his paintings, often at long intervals. Even though the selection is broadly thematic, with rooms dedicated to the nude, to portraits and self-portraits, to the landscapes painted in Normandy and in the South of France, it is ordered enough to make sense to anyone coming fresh to the work. Also included is a section showing Bonnard’s own photographs (whimsically titled ‘Clic-Clac Kodak’).

Bonnard’s updating of the theme of the bather, exchanging the pastoral settings of the nymphs and goddesses of an earlier age for the tiled and enamelled surfaces of the modern bathroom, is one of his most powerful inventions. Allusions to the nudes of Fragonard and Boucher, for example, can be found in the occasional slipper or pile of discarded clothes, but the figures themselves owe their form, and very often their pose, to antiquity. This combination of Rococo embellishment with the rigour and reserve of ancient Egypt and Greece is another mark of his originality and finds its apotheosis in the subject of the nude lying full-length in the bath, represented here by two works: Tate’s Baignoire (no.71; 1925; Fig.48) and Nu dans le bain, the version painted eleven years later for the newly opened Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris (no.73). Life drawing to a close is another of Bonnard’s persistent themes, whether it is in these late bath paintings with their references to ancient sarcophagi or in the still lifes (rather thin on the ground in this selection) where ripeness is not far off decay. All through the work there is a longing to halt the change that time brings (the image of Marthe Bonnard remains constant over a period of thirty-five years or more). Children play in the meadows, but the heavy green foliage of high summer casts shadows and darkens the landscape. Marriages come to grief: the portrait of Misia Natanson with her husband Thadée was painted, strangely, on the eve of an acrimonious divorce (no.41; c.1906; Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid), fruit rots, flowers wilt and gardens become overgrown. The work of Bonnard’s last decade, much of it painted in the bleakest years of the Second World War, defies the deprivation and hardship suffered under the Occupation with explosions of elation and abundance as seen in Le Jardin of 1936–38 (no.22; Centre Pompidou, Paris) and L’Atelier au mimosa of 1939–46 (no.21; Fig.50), splendidly hung together here to create a cacophony of yellow. It is the norm for major Bonnard exhibitions to close on this elegiac note.

Taking advantage of the grand proportions of the final room, Cogeval opted for a less conventional finale and ends as he began, with the theme of Bonnard as painter of decorative schemes. Gathered together are a number of the major decorative commissions carried out over a period of twenty years or so, a decision that results in an abrupt change of gear. After the thoughtful installation of the previous rooms, the works in this huge space look uneasy in each other’s company. Take for instance, La Mediterranée, the triptych commissioned in 1910 by the Russian collector Ivan Morozov (Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg; no.131). Old photographs of the palatial interior of Morozov’s Moscow house show a richly ornamented staircase, at the head of which is Bonnard’s triptych installed between terracotta half columns inviting the visitor mounting the stairs to step out onto a broad sunlit terrace heavy with summer foliage. The paintings, over four metres high, were originally installed unstretched and glued to the wall. Meant to be glimpsed slowly they now appear disappointingly flat, more like theatrical backdrops than murals. Three of the four decorative canvases painted for the vestibule of Josse and Gaston Bernheim’s Paris residence between 1916 and 1920 are also shown and, although technically more ambitious and visually richer than La Mediterranée, they too look as artificial as stage scenery (La Symphonie pastorale; Musée d’Orsay; no.119; Les Travailleurs à la Grand Jatte; National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo; no.120; and La Mediterranée; private collection; no.121).3 Very different are the two Paris scenes painted for George Besson, La Place Clichy (no.125; 1912; Centre Pompidou, Paris) and Le Café ‘Au Petit Poucet’, Place Clichy (no.126; 1928; Centre Pompidou, Paris) – different because although commissioned as decor they were conceived as paintings and as such take their place among Bonnard’s major works. Quite what was intended by this final room is not easy to gauge, but the choice of works and the way they were shown suggest that Bonnard’s strong identification with the ambitions of his fellow Nabis should not be consigned solely to the early years. His is a reputation that has been questioned and re-evaluated more than most other major artists of his generation, not least because of his readiness to provide his friends and patrons with ‘decors’ steeped in the spirit of the 1890s. That discussion has not been helped by the way his descendants have for decades zealously guarded his papers. However, now that some of his personal documents have recently come on to the market following the death of his nephew Antoine Terrasse in 2013, a new era of scholarship will  surely follow.4


1     Nicholas Watkins in ‘Bonnard et L’art decoratif’ expands on this subject in the catalogue, pp.214–23: Pierre Bonnard Peindre L’Arcadie. Edited by Guy Cogeval and Isabelle Cahn, with essays by Ursula Perucchi-Petri, Paul-Henri Bourrelier, Felix Krämer, Philippe Comar, Marina Ferretti Bocquillon, Magali Lesauvage, Antoine Terrasse, Nicholas Watkins, Maria Lopez Fernandez, Margrit Hahnloser-Ingold, Eliza Rathbone and Albert Kostemevitch. 307 pp. incl. 234 col. ills. (Musée d’Orsay, Editions Hazan, Paris, 2015), €45. ISBN 978–2– 7541–0815–7.
2    After Paris, the exhibition tours to Fundacion MAPFRE, Madrid, 10th September to 6th January 2016, and Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 6th February to 15th May 2016.
3    The other canvas from this decorative scheme, not shown here, is Le Paradis terrestre, in the Art Institute of Chicago.
4     Sale, Fontainebleau, Hôtel des ventes Osenat, 29th March 2015.