Breakfast of Champions

John Haber
in New York City

Pierre Bonnard: Late Interiors

Pierre Bonnard sketched assiduously in his last years. He filled palm-sized blank books with image after image of the same thing, a basket or bowl of fruit. More than one object can share a page, leaving the rest of the space mostly empty. He seems compelled to capture the "thing in itself" before it slips away. He wants it always available, always at hand, just like the artist's "daybook."

Even when he expands his subject to ordinary sheets of paper, a sketch rarely looks intended for presentation. It hardly even passes as preparation for a painting. Whether in pencil or in watercolor and gouache, Bonnard leaves the background to the imagination. It appears as an extension of the object, in cryptic curls and tick marks. Historians like to call his style intimate, witty, and epigrammatic. These marks are his epigrams. Pierre Bonnard's Before Dinner (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1924)

One can see his late interiors as all about parsing the epigrams. They fill in the background, but always as something a little hazy and a little shady. Often as not his wife, Marthe, lurks in the shadows. The Met wants to claim the paintings as central to modern art. Maybe not, but they offer a good excuse to revisit Mediterranean light in search of some darker epigrams.

The ultimate bourgeois

The Met is in the museum business, and it never lets one forget it. More than any museum I know, it treats its exhibitions as products and career opportunities. It has centered entire shows around dubious attributions. It has just finished its director's term, "The Philippe de Montebello Years," with an homage to its curators. When they have an unusual thesis, it never admits to doubts. It regularly uses wall labels to boast rather than to explain.

This time, the Met does more than make extraordinary claims for a noteworthy artist. It also wants one to see him as long neglected. This will come as news to textbook readers. Bonnard first appears in the 1990s, generally paired with Edouard Vuillard. Influenced by Paul Gauguin, they took the saturated color of Impressionism and gave it an architecture. They in turn influenced Matisse. No wonder Gertrude and Leo Stein took an interest in them all.

Impressionism wanted to be true to nature, Bonnard remarked, but "art and nature are two different things." At the same time, he rejected Gauguin's mythmaking. He wanted something witty rather than ponderous, and he found it in ordinary interiors. Bonnard, like Henri Matisse, then gets second wind late in life. After a quarter century, he moves from Paris to the south of France. His sunlight intensifies, and so does the claustrophobia of a life indoors. He will never live down the label of the ultimate bourgeois painter, but art history honors him for that, too.

The show begins in 1924, the year after Bonnard first checked out Le Cannet, a village near Cannes. He moved there in 1926, to a pink stucco house, and converted an upstairs bedroom to his studio. It gave him the most light. Pretty much every painting begins with that light and the object on which it falls.

One first sees the light. In almost every painting, the basket or fruit dish occupies the center or foreground. It also has the brightest, purest color, like the pure red of plums or the orange and yellow of oranges and persimmons. They catch a painting's only white highlights and only spots of impasto. Sometimes the theme extends to flowers on a mantel or a sheaf of wisteria, but more often it centers on the breakfast table. With each viewing, one awakens to morning sunlight, a warm pot of tea, and a rich breakfast—always ready and always ready at hand.

Surrounding the creature comforts, paint thins and soaks into canvas. Colors become more muted and run the gamut, through pinks and purples. They may establish the room's architecture, as well as the painting's, in the rectangles of a window or paneling. They also isolate the object at hand, as if floating on a sea. In one painting, a rug takes up the background. One could mistake its dark floral pattern for the water's surface, like Water Lilies by Claude Monet.

From idyll to isolation

Bonnard does have his bourgeois idyll. Every moment is morning, and every morning holds out instant gratification. At the breakfast table, all is "Luxe, Calme, et Volupté"—as Baudelaire titled a poem that Matisse used for a painting. However, it is also an ideal, like Baudelaire's distant utopia, a matter of art and not nature. The fruit look accessible but float in isolation. Their color also identifies them with vision, as opposed to the tactility of actual fruit or of the background architecture.

Marthe belongs to the architecture. She and perhaps another woman may appear in shadow, aligned with the painting's edges or a fireplace. She may bend over, her face hidden by her hair. The roundness of her head accentuates the roundness of her body. Where her flesh appears, it has the dark tones of Gauguin's Tahiti. She may or may not look away, but she never makes eye contact.

All this, too, sounds right out of the textbooks, at least those since feminism and Postmodernism. The woman serves as object rather than subject. She is solid, available to the touch. She is always there for the viewer's gratification, preparing breakfast. Just once, Bonnard may allow her gratification of her own, as the cryptic curve on the front edge of a bathtub. She could be taking a bath, but she could just as easily be drowning.

The interiors change so slowly that one may never notice the change. I saw it myself only as I walked back and forth among the corridors of the Lehman wing. That, too, goes with the artist's obsession with the everyday as ideal. His art has something in common with the chilly stasis of later still life by Giorgio Morandi. Still, things do change.

After a short time, the table becomes more prominent, departs more from the horizontal, and extends further into depth. The white of the tablecloth takes on more of a role as a floating island. Later, one gets to see open windows and greenery beyond. They do not altogether break the spell of the interior. Their view looks as flat as a painting, and the cross of the window looks like the back of a picture frame. Shadows may enter the foreground.

In the 1940s, the entire painting becomes sparer and paler. Light rectangles enter the background. Marthe has her bath and dies in 1942. Bonnard looks gaunt and uncertain in his last self-portraits, and he dies in 1947. He has five years to cope with isolation and the war, with breakfast harder to get. He five years, too, to revisit their lives together and his art.

Delayed gratification

The Met insists on Bonnard's structural complexity. It wants to turn him into a paradigm of modern art. I am not so sure.

The artist might have insisted on his clarity. The work always does start with the object, and it all flows from there. Bonnard then arranges a composition as a series of planes in depth. They may not correspond to the planes of physical space, but this clarity belongs solely to art. An unnatural vantage point from above may place the floor behind the table. One shelf in a cabinet may appear to extend just beyond and behind the other.

An earlier artist might have disrupted the picture plane in one direction. For Caravaggio in his early work after Lombardy, Francisco de Zurbarán, and the Baroque, the weave of a basket thrusts it forward, as if it were about to tumble into one's hands. Bonnard mutes its texture, leaving the object in the painting's center. For Pablo Picasso and Cubism, cues jostle, collide, and overlap—turning the picture plane into a puzzle of visions, textures, and even sound. For Matisse, the picture plane can encompass anything, as a single field of color. Bonnard gives everything space.

He also refuses Modernism's confusion of art and life. He plays down overt struggle. He does not, unlike Paul Cézanne, let tablecloths turn into mountaintops. Despite the confines of his studio, he hardly hints at his own art. In the rare event that a painting appears, it blurs into the architecture. Rather than punning on his art, he makes nature into artifice.

Psychology complexity, however, is another matter. Only toward the end does the Met let on that Bonnard had to end an affair just as the show begins, when Marthe caught on. They married in 1925, after thirty years of life together, and his former mistress later committed suicide. The wall labels do not note Marthe's growing fear of society, echoed in the claustrophobia of endless interiors. By moving to Le Cannet, Bonnard in effect chose exile rather than accept banishment. In exchange, his wife will eternally serve breakfast and live in shadow.

These undercurrents will never eradicate the glorious sunlight, but they endlessly defer its realization. The fruit lie always ready at hand, but only because they can never be consumed. The same theme applies in spades to the woman he knows best—as subject of the male gaze but hardly an attractive one and always turning away. In one painting, she makes it into the foreground shadow, but most will first notice the table setting. When she springs into view, it could startle anyone, and it may have unnerved the artist as well. The ultimate bourgeois has his final solace in delayed gratification.

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"Pierre Bonnard: The Late Interiors" ran through April 19, 2009, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.


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