Saturday, March 7, 2009


Friday I visited an exhibition at the Met: "Pierre Bonnard: The Late Interiors." The exhibit features luminous canvases painted from 1923 to 1947 that provide ample evidence for a reading of Bonnard as a great modernist, a relentless experimenter with color and form. In sharing those interests with the better known and more protean Henri Matisse, Bonnard does not suffer from the comparison. Bonnard, unlike Matisse, creates a sense of unease and disruption, of those forces -- such as love of beauty -- that sustain the artist, as well as those forces -- such as existential dread and a sense of the arbitrary interplay of imagination and perception -- that question art's purpose and reach. While Matisse feels, for the most part, celebratory about art's role in life, Bonnard suggests a burden in life that art can only suggest, never expiate.

In Bonnard's work the color is dense, featuring many virtuoso overlays, but it is also color that departs from any merely mimetic function. While always interested in depicting light as it demarcates different areas in a room, or as it reflects off some surfaces and is swallowed by others, Bonnard's sense of color makes light a pattern more than a presence. It doesn't simply illuminate his subjects, it makes a phantasmagoria of color effects play upon them. Along with the liberties of palette and the merging of foreground and background that occur because of the difficulty of reading gradations of color in a straight-forward manner -- in which they would be employed to create depth -- Bonnard's canvases present effects of composition that constantly keep the viewer off-guard, never able to settle into a comfortable viewing space where the frame "captures" all we need to see, and where spatial orientation is consistent. Tables appear vertical creating a sense of objects floating rather than sitting upon them; objects and figures are cut-off by the edge of the painting, sometimes looming like vague shapes in our periphery, sometimes sliding in like apparitions that haven't quite taken shape; shadows beneath plates, or within a fireplace, or -- most ominously -- within a partially open door are fraught with somber implications; figures -- most often Bonnard's wife, Marthe -- seem crouched, furtive, at times alive with vibrant colors that seem a mask or covering, at times rendered in schematic lines that recall Gauguin or Matisse; windows look out upon a landscape in which a garden or the distant strand of Cannes may appear as flat as a wall-painting or as radiant as a celestial realm.

But nothing I've said gives any sense of what it's like to stand before these paintings, engaged in reading the interplay of colors that truly create a world of their own without ever completely departing from the assumptions that govern our perceptions of our world. Bonnard only occasionally risks utter abstraction or the extremely notational manner of Picasso. Meanwhile, a tablecloth seems to contain a Diebenkorn, a stretch of wall offers subtle color relations that put to shame a "colorist" such as Guston. Bonnard learned from the Impressionists the mannerism of light rendered as overlayed brushstrokes of color, but he took that technique in a direction more extreme, which is to say, more self-involved. Painting from memory and notes rather than in situ, Bonnard creates an art of the mind's eye, an interior view of interiors that circle, again and again, upon a tablecloth that seems to stand for the canvas itself and a window that stands for the external world as yet another painting. If this sounds claustrophobic, it is, but at the same time, these paintings offer vistas of tension that play before one's eyes like astounding drugged or dream visions.

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