“Pierre Bonnard: The Late Interiors,” recently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, demonstrated that, contrary to much critical thinking, modernism is not incompatible with natural, easily accessible beauty. Bonnard’s (1867–1947) luminous paintings give the viewer a jolt of pure pleasure, yet a sharp visual intelligence underlies everything he does. It is perhaps significant that, while Picasso dismissed Bonnard’s work, Matisse admired it. Most of the forty-five paintings in the Met exhibition, supplemented by watercolors and drawings, were created in the small villa, overlooking the Mediterranean, at Le Cannet, near Cannes, where Bonnard settled with his wife and muse, Marthe, in 1926. The domestic life of the villa—a table set for lunch, a view outside to the garden—provided subjects for these still lifes and interiors, some of which casually include a female figure or the family dachshund. But the artist has little interest in anecdote, or even realism. Bonnard painted the familiar, but he did not paint from life. He recorded quick impressions in sketches and notebooks. His daybook entries can be observational: “Purple in the grays. Vermilion in the orange shadows, on a cold, fine day” (February, 1927). He can be philosophical; the same year, he defined paintings as “the transcription of the adventures of the optic nerve.” Working with his memories of perception, Bonnard patiently built up a composition, continuing his optic experiments. He wrote in 1945: “When one covers a surface with colors, one should always be able to try any number of new approaches, find a never-ending supply of new combinations of forms and colors which satisfy emotional needs.”
The first, immediately apparent glory of Bonnard’s painting is his color—intense, soft and, most of all, radiant. Bonnard’s color seems illuminated from within, an effect he achieved through hard work. “There is always color,” he wrote, “it has yet to become light.” Ripe, warm colors dominate in Basket of Fruit: Oranges and Persimmons (c. 1940), where the bright orange and yellow globes glow like jewels against the green of the basket. Viewing the still life from above, the artist tilts everything up against the picture plane, flattening the objects and using the crimson tablecloth as the ground of the painting. In contrast, The White Interior (1932) is cooler, more restrained and more realistic in its depiction of space, at least at first glance. But our angle of vision fractures the white elements—doors, a mantle, a radiator—into complex rectangular fragments, and the view through the French doors is as alluringly exotic as Gauguin’s Tahití.
Bonnard often seems to play a game of hide-and-seek with the figures in his paintings. They are intimate members of his household yet remain elusive. In Before Dinner (1924), two women are seated in the dining room, looking neither at each other nor at us, nor at the dachshund emerging from behind a chair. The nicely set dinner table breaks up the shadowy space with a rectangle of white. The woman leaning over the pitchers and cups in Breakfast (1930) is much closer to us, but the color breaks up so much, especially in her pink-violet robe, that shapes are difficult to hold onto. Young Woman in the Garden (1921–23) presents a protagonist who turns towards us and smiles, her blonde hair merging with the bee-pollen-yellow ground, as dazzling as full sunlight. The most elusive character is the artist himself, depicted as a melancholy half-figure with glasses and thinning hair, an ochre-colored ghost reflected in a mirror, in Self-Portrait (1938–40).
Bonnard can be a difficult artist to pigeonhole. His experiments with light ally him with the Impressionists, while his compositional daring is modernist. His intimate scale and the way he finds unexpected patterns in domestic interiors are reminiscent of Vuillard. His decorativeness recalls the Nabis, without the arcana of symbolisme. Bonnard is a superb colorist but lacks Matisse’s transformative ambition. Circumscribing his world of subjects, Bonnard finds his niche in the spaces between, looking at a still life illuminated by light from a window or at a garden framed by interior architecture. In Still Life with Fruit (1930), the rounded forms of a teapot and a pile of fruit are studies in highlight and shadow, transfigured by some exterior ray. In Dining Room Overlooking the Garden (1930–31), similar shadows, cast towards the viewer, give weight to the objects on the table with its bright white cloth. The backdrop, taking up two-thirds of the picture, is a garden view, framed by the window architecture and soft purple, patterned curtains. It’s a mysterious tableau, like the setting for a magical play. What makes this a great painting is the juxtaposition and the reversal of expectations: the interior all sharp light, the exterior a private realm of shadow. Bonnard plays a more self-consciously modernist variation on this theme in Table in Front of the Window (1934–35). The sense of spatial recession has been jettisoned. The orange lines on the tablecloth are straight-up vertical, continuing the lines of the curtains. The fruit bowl is a flat shape, and a chairback interlocks visually with the wooden window frame to form an easel shape. The view outside, a sketchy paradise of glowing color, reads as a painting-within-a-painting. Bonnard uses the conceit of the easel again in Dining Room on the Garden (1934–35). The particularity of the domestic still life provides a counterpoint to the blurred contours of the landscape outside. This sort of visual punning is a trademark of the Surrealists, especially Magritte, but Bonnard finds it instinctively, as one of the infinite possibilities of his own microcosm of life and art. The exhibition is accompanied by an illustrated catalogue with essays by curator Dita Amory and others. “Pierre Bonnard: The Late Interiors” was on view January 27–April 19, 2009 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10028. Telephone (212) 570-3951. On the web at www.metmuseum.org