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Pierre Bonnard in Paris

Pierre Bonnard, L'homme et la femme, 1900, Musée d'OrsayWhile visiting the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris last Wednesday, I spent some time in the absolutely spectacular Pierre Bonnard exhibit, Pierre Bonnard: L’oeuvre d’art, un arrêt du temps. (For some quotes from French reviews of this important retrospective, see Le Musée d'art moderne de la ville de Paris, February 8.) Bonnard hardly needs any help getting people to like his paintings, but if someone still needs convincing, this is the place for it to happen. In his admiration for the female body, Bonnard is the heir of Ingres, but without all of the academic baggage. You know Bonnard's portraits, his landscapes, his warm, glowing interior scenes, but there are minor works in the show, too, that bring some illumination to a remarkable career, as well as piles and piles of beautiful paintings.

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Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale, Misia: The Life of Misia Sert
In the exhibit's second room you fall upon three of the four large panels that Bonnard made for the dining room in Misia Sert's apartment on the Quai Voltaire in 1906 and exhibited publicly in the Salon d'Automne in 1910. (Misia Sert lived a fascinating life, as I learned from an excellent biography, shown at left, suggested by a friend. She wrote a memoir, too. Renoir did a portrait of Misia and Bonnard made a painting of her house: neither is in this show. Bonnard's portrait of Misia and other portrait of Misia are, no surprise, better than Renoir's.) As in the much earlier Le Peignoir (1892) in the first room, Bonnard was in his japonisme phase (as a member of the Nabi group). The Sert panels are unified by the same pictorial border, monkeys and birds perched on branches. One of the panels, Le Plaisir, contains a figure identified as Serge Diaghilev, one of Misia's closest friends. By comparison to Bonnard's most famous paintings, in his later colorful style, the early works are surprisingly muted in color choice.

Pierre Bonnard, Le Cabinet de toilette au canapé rose, 1908, Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels

In 1893, Bonnard met his muse, a 16-year-old girl named Marthe de Méligny (née Maria Boursin). Although they were not married for another 30 years or so, she was Bonnard's constant companion and lover, and he obsessively depicted her nude for his whole life. Bonnard showed himself and Marthe, just after sex, in the shockingly intimate L'homme et la femme (Musée d'Orsay, 1900), shown above with the opening paragraph. The erotic portraits of the first decade of their relationship include the naughty L'indolence (private collection, 1899) -- in which Marthe's pose was perhaps inspired by Courbet's infamous L'origine du monde -- and the tender La sieste (National Gallery of Victoria, 1900). This was also the period of Bonnard's fetish for Marthe in black stockings (in several drawings and paintings in the show).

Pierre Bonnard, La Cheminée, 1916, Private collectionSomewhere around the time of Le Cabinet de toilette au canapé rose (Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, 1908) -- a loving portrait of Marthe applying her perfume, shown above -- Bonnard's palette began to lighten toward the lighter, brighter colors we associate with his mature style. By the time we reach the extraordinary Nu au gant bleu (private collection, 1916) and La Cheminée (private collection, 1916), the colors are much more vibrant, leaning toward pastel. This is more or less the classic Bonnard, painting in a positively retrogressive way in the era of Dada and Surrealism. One of the many revelations of the show is the wall of tiny photographic proofs that are snapshots of Bonnard and Marthe, standing nude in their garden. Bonnard cannot be accused of idealizing too much: she was a shapely, thin, altogether lovely woman. There are also several of his pencil drawings and water colors on the opposite wall, revealing somewhat his conceptual process.

There are rooms, literally, of various views of Marthe lying in or about to get into the bathtub. Perhaps too many examples, although the variations in color and composition from frame to frame are of mild interest. The best example is Effet de glace from the Winterthur Museum, in which Marthe hovering over her bath is reflected in the mirror of a mantel.

Pierre Bonnard, Salle à manger à la campagne, 1913, Minneapolis Institute of ArtThere is a similar excess of riches in the number of landscapes, but one cannot argue with the examples selected. Be careful not to miss the three enormous panels of La Mediterranée (1911, Hermitage), made in Russia for a patron's home. They are hung outside the entrance to the exhibit, a little off to the side. Again, there is an entire room of Norman landscapes, toward the end of the exhibit. The domestic views -- part interior and part landscape -- are the best ones, such as the many paintings done at Ma Roulotte, the home in Normandy that Bonnard purchased in 1912. In this category are great paintings like La salle à manger, Vernon (1925-27), very similar to the one owned by the Met.

Other Resources:

Pierre Bonnard: Observing Nature (National Gallery of Australia)

Pierre Bonnard Images (Olga's Gallery)

Bonnard (1998 exhibit, Museum of Modern Art)

Pierre Bonnard: Sous la lumière du Cannet (2001 exhibit, Espace Bonnard, Le Cannet)
In the 1913 Salle à manger à la campagne, owned by the Minneapolis Institute of Art, a woman in an electric orange chemise leans into the darkened room and the whole colorful panoply of the landscape outdoors invades with her. A translucent purple curtain hangs from the windows. If you have ever sat in a French home, shut up all night, at the moment when you throw open those big windows, you will immediately recognize the sensations of light and smell in this painting. (Bonnard achieves a similar effect in one of his café paintings, a scene on the terrasse of the Petit Poucet (1928), a place that still exists on the Place Clichy.) There is, once again, a surabondance of these domestic landscapes. If you will be in Paris before May 7, this show is a must-see. Allow yourself the better part of a day if you want to take it in in any kind of detail.

One of the best sections of the show is a hallway with eight of Bonnard's self-portraits, from 1899 to very near the time of his death, with half of them coming from private collections and therefore mostly inaccessible. There we see the precise, reserved, silhouette of a man who did not allow either devastating world war in Europe to have any perceptible impact on the luminescent world of his art. In his garden, with Marthe, nothing else mattered.

See also Michael Kimmelman, Pierre Bonnard Retrospective at the Musée d'Art Moderne in Paris (New York Times, March 30).


Mark Barry said...

16 years old? Those French. Very nice piece Monsieur.

Anonymous said...

Amazing Dr.D.Sad I wasn't with you!