Review | How and why to look at Pierre Bonnard, one of the great modern painters


No one painted checked tablecloths quite like Pierre Bonnard. No one had his mysterious feeling for bathroom tiles and doorjambs, table edges, tub rims, mantelpieces and mirrors. But if you think I’m trying to frame Bonnard as a minor painter mired in domesticity, his paintings like outmoded, linoleum-lined kitchens — you’re very wrong.

Bonnard, who is the subject of a marvelous, mind-altering exhibition at the Phillips Collection, was one of the great 20th-century painters. Although never as universally acclaimed as Henri Matisse or Picasso, he has profoundly influenced some of the most acclaimed painters of the past 50 years, among them Peter Doig, Mamma Andersson, Lois Dodd, Howard Hodgkin, Elisabeth Cummings and Andrew Cranston.

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An heir to the impressionists and post-impressionists, he was, with his friend Édouard Vuillard, one of the so-called Nabis, who came to prominence at the end of the 19th century. Like proliferating heirs to a great fortune, the Nabis specialized in jealously subdividing their canvases into smaller and smaller patterned rectangles. They disbanded in 1899.

Bonnard kept going. Transcending movements, he gradually became inimitable. A profoundly original colorist, he was also a poet of fugitive bliss and thwarted intimacy.

With around 60 paintings from across Bonnard’s career, “Bonnard’s Worlds” — which has come to the Phillips after opening at the beautiful Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth — is a proper retrospective. (It was organized by the Kimbell’s George Shackelford, with Elsa Smithgall of the Phillips.) But it’s unusual. Instead of a conventional, chronological hang, the run of galleries is designed to envelop the viewer in waves of subtle feeling that increase in intimacy as you move further in. These measures of intimacy are keyed to the spaces, or worlds, Bonnard depicted.

Japanese prints were a huge influence on Bonnard. So it’s interesting, in the context of the show’s layout, to know about a Japanese concept called “Oku.” Oku has to do with how space — real or imaginary — is layered and choreographed as one moves from open, public areas toward more sequestered, private zones.

The principle of Oku imbues that outer-to-inner movement with a feeling of ritual suspense. That’s because it’s not simply about moving toward a clearly understood goal but toward something unknown and possibly unlocatable. Where modern Western design is based in principles of rationality and transparency, Oku tends to involve a spirit of searching — and sometimes frustration.

There’s something similar going on in the art of Bonnard. Although his paintings offer up an embarrassment of sensuous pleasures, he also uses subtle impediments to charge the distance between you and whatever kind of intimacy, spiritual or secular, you are seeking.

In its design, “Bonnard’s Worlds” tries to enact this dynamic as it moves us from outside to inside. The show opens with the painter’s views of Paris and the countryside. It moves on to his descriptions of gardens and terraces. After that come compositions that fold distant exteriors into proximate interiors through the device of large windows. Next come loving descriptions of shared interior spaces before we come to the more private, erotically charged zones of bedroom and bathroom. Finally, the mirror: Bonnard’s justly celebrated (because so unflinching) self-portraits.

The genius of this way of presenting Bonnard is its carefully choreographed journey into intimacy, with all its promises and pitfalls.

Personal experience was the premise of Bonnard’s work, and place was at the heart of that experience. But he didn’t merely record what he saw before him. Rather, he wove together sight, memory and feeling, transposing all this into arrangements of colored paint. He worked in various locales, including Paris and Vernonnet (just a few miles from Claude Monet’s garden at Giverny). In the 1920s, he discovered the French Riviera, eventually purchasing a property, Le Bosquet (or The Grove), at Le Cannet, in the hills overlooking Cannes.

The show begins with Bonnard’s expansive, world-savoring views of landscapes and towns. Several of these recall the extended vistas or “worldscapes” of Pieter Bruegel. But Bonnard’s vision, even in these vast paintings, is counterintuitively close. His inimitable touch keeps us connected to every part of the view.

Bonnard liked to begin each morning with a walk, always in the company of one of his beloved dachshunds. As he aged, according to his friend Thadée Natanson, “he needed more and more, to live directly in nature.” His landscapes, teeming and abundant, communicate this desire for immersion. Masterpieces such as “Landscape at Le Cannet” and “Earthly Paradise” (in which Bonnard and his wife, Marthe, appear on either side of the picture as Adam and Eve) have high horizon lines and slender skies.

In his earliest outdoor pictures, Bonnard conceived of the canvas as “as a light-filled tapestry into which the subject was ‘woven,’ fading in and out across time and space,” according to the art historian Nicholas Watkins. His later landscapes became airier — more intuitive, less planned — but they retained something of this tapestry-like quality.

In the next sections of the exhibition, showing outdoor terraces and views through windows, hang some of Bonnard’s greatest works. I loved the busy, comical quality of “The Terrasse Family,” a large, heavily populated early work from around 1902, as well as “The Terrace” (1918), set in Vernonnet, and “The Palm” (1926), set in Le Cannet. The latter two are in the Phillips Collection. The museum’s founder, Duncan Phillips, purchased his first two Bonnards in 1925 and went on to assemble one of the world’s finest collections of his work.

“Young Women in the Garden,” which seems to have been painted on the terrace at Ma Roulette, Bonnard’s residence in Vernonnet, shows the unmistakable face of Bonnard’s blond-haired mistress, Renée Monchaty. It takes a moment to realize that it also includes a cropped glimpse of Marthe at bottom right.

Monchaty, who was about 30 years younger than Bonnard, came into his life in 1920. The following year he spent two weeks with her in Rome. Marthe, whom he had met almost 30 years earlier, seems to have learned of the affair. After a period of reckoning, Bonnard married Marthe in a desultory civil ceremony in 1925. Two weeks later, Monchaty was found dead, presumably a suicide.

Can all this emotional tumult help account for the simultaneously ecstatic yet thwarted quality in so many great Bonnards? “Art is not nature,” he once said. And — more famously — “Many small lies yield a great truth.” Bonnard’s small lies, like the choreographing of passageways and impediments in Oku, have the effect of charging the space between viewer and picture with a questing, obstacle-strewn quality, conjuring the many ways in which desire and memory distort reality.

Some of his methods of drawing you in almost feel like tricks. He is constantly planting clues so that you want, as Shackelford writes, “to solve the riddle” that his pictures pose. An inconspicuous handle, for instance, is the only indication that the thin vertical strip at the edge of a painting might be a door. Black cats and children’s faces, meanwhile, are constantly merging with backgrounds, so that you only register them on your second or third look.

“Color has led me astray,” said Bonnard (more than a bit trickily!), “and almost unconsciously, I sacrificed form for it.” His wobbly outlines, gauche bodies and mottled colors yield great pictures, undoubtedly. But they are devoid of the distilled clarity of paintings by his great friend Matisse. They approximate instead a more hesitant dynamic, familiar from psychoanalysis: “half the expression of a wish,” as the poet and critic Randall Jarrell put it, “and half the defense against the wish.”

All this reaches a pitch of intensity in Bonnard’s most intimate paintings, in the show’s final galleries. These contain his depictions of bedrooms, of Marthe in the tiled bathroom at Le Bosquet, and of his own face and body as seen in the mirror.

In “Man and Woman,” a painting that has the elemental psychological density of something by Edvard Munch, a post-coital couple is dramatically separated by a screen, which also divides the painting in half. She sits up in bed, warmly illuminated, slickly naked, eyes cast down to where the foot of one jackknifed leg meets her other thigh. He stands in shadow, preparing to dress. Oof, you think: what passes between men and women!

An extraordinarily heightened feeling is generated by the contrast between Bonnard’s vibrating self-portraits — so saturated in pathos and mortality — and the series he painted concurrently of Marthe in the bath, poached, attenuated, inexplicably insulated from the mortifications of age.

The bath pictures are, as Shackelford writes, “among the defining works of the artist’s career.” They are also, notoriously, “lies”: Marthe was in her 50s, 60s and then 70s, yet Bonnard persisted in painting the body of a teenager. But I don’t find pathos in this. Everything Bonnard painted has the quality of something imaginatively reconstituted, or retrieved from time itself, in the manner of Marcel Proust. Seen this way, each bath picture is just another surge in a veritable inundation of truth-telling about the tortuous workings of intimacy.

Bonnard’s Worlds is on view at the Phillips Collection through June 2.


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