Sunday, May 24, 2020

Bonnard at Home

The Palm, 1926, Le Cannet

These days, I spend most of my time at home. I am not alone as millions around the world find themselves under house arrest to try to stop the spread of a highly contagious and dangerous virus.  Home for me is a very small Brooklyn railroad flat; four rooms and a small bath all in a row like railroad cars, and facing the Brooklyn Queens Expressway out the front, and a hackberry tree in the back.  I share that small space with my partner Michael and two cats, Bonkers and Mickey.  It's not exactly a domestic paradise, but it is comfortable with light coming in from two ends, unusual for a New York apartment.  Under terms of the state shelter-in-place order, the building housing my studio on the Lower East Side is closed, and so my usual workspace is inaccessible.  So now, I paint at home on the kitchen table in acrylics on canvas panels.  I feel very grateful every morning now to wake up feeling well in a decent if small home.  I'm grateful to still have employment, and to be able to work from home  (I must teach painting through "remote learning," trying to make it work as I go along).  I'm very mindful of those who have none of those things at this time of great hardship (including a lot of my students).

Pierre Bonnard is much on my mind lately, an artist who after 1900 until his death in 1947 spent most of his time at home.  He made domestic pleasure his main subject.  Bonnard set his paintings in the kitchen, bedroom, bath, and garden of a comfortable semi-rural middle class French home of the early 20th century.  He painted the intimate pleasures that take place in such a home; good company, good food, pleasant weather, comfortable rooms filled with sunlight, and sex.  A lot of other artists at the time painted domestic subject matter from the grand domestic paradises of Matisse to the haunted dramatic rooms of the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi.  Bonnard's paintings of his home differ considerably in form and spirit from both of those painters.  Matisse's great paintings of palatial grande bourgeois homes or grand bourgeois hotel suites remain firmly rooted in monumental French Classicism.  Matisse presents the interior of a luxury hotel suite in Nice with the concentration and completion of a Poussin.  Bonnard seems to poke his head into a room, look up from a seat, or look across a table at whoever or what ever is there.

Bonnard turned to domestic subject matter after 1900.  Instead of the flat decorative form of his earlier work that he learned from Japanese art and Gauguin , Bonnard revived and adapted the Impressionist chromatic palette and brushstroke to reconstruct the fleeting ephemera of household pleasure in his mature work.  Bonnard's rooms are pleasures (though not uncomplicated ones) and nothing like the haunted interiors of Hammershøi.  Unlike the Impressionist painters, Bonnard rarely worked from life.  His paintings are reconstructions of remembered experience.  He uses the Impressionist chromatic palette, but almost never naturalistically.  The play of warm and cool colors becomes a drama of its own as they remake remembered contrasts of light and dark.

Palms in the Phillips Collection in Washington DC above has always been among my favorite paintings by Bonnard.  A young girl in the foreground in the very center offers us an open pomegranate.  We look beyond her to the red tile rooftops of hillside houses beyond the terrace where we are standing.  The blue distance of the town of Le Cannet recedes until we come to the arch of palm fronds at the top that bring us back to the girl standing beneath.  Bonnard's seemingly casual compositions guide us to see exactly what he wants us to see and in the order he wants us to see things.  Warm sunlight pokes through cool shade throughout the painting.  Remarkably, Bonnard retains a strong light dark contrast without sacrificing any intensity of color.  Brilliant cool greens, blues, and lavenders come up against equally intense oranges and yellows.  None of this is quite how we see and experience things as in a painting by Claude Monet (a personal friend of Bonnard).  It is not likely that this ever happened, that any girl offered a pomegranate, or that this is any particular place in Le Cannet.  The painting reconstructs many memories adding up to the experience of the place.  In the end, the image memory conjures up forms the stage upon which brilliant colors play out their dramatic contrasts for their own purposes beyond describing anything.

I've always loved these dramatic plays of brilliant color in Bonnard's mature work that become less tied to visual experience and glow with their own light as he gets older. My one complaint about his work is that I find his drawing to be a little wobbly.  There are times when I wish that play of colors had a sturdier support of form, especially in his figures.  However, the last thing I would ever do is call any work by Bonnard crude or weak.  The compositions may be informal, fragmentary, and intimate, but they are very sophisticated.

The Open Window, 1921, Vernonnet

This painting made a big impact on the work of Richard Diebenkorn who saw it in the Phillips Collection while on a visit to Washington DC.  And I can see why.  Bonnard takes actual experience and turns it into abstract form.  The window frames and even the shade echo the framing edges of the canvas. Bonnard never really forgot the lessons of Gauguin and Japanese art, transforming imagery into flat decorative form. The contrast and transition between indoor and outdoor fascinated Bonnard as it would fascinate Diebenkorn.  The intense warm oranges of the indoors contrasts with the brilliant cool blues and lavenders of the outdoors.  That contrast of light and color between indoor and outdoor is the real drama of this work.
Bonnard skirts the outer edges of abstraction in his work, but never wants to completely depart from the experience that inspired the painting.  The brilliant warm sunshine streaming through a window that sets off these color contrasts retains its form and character.  The last thing we notice in this painting is a small human and animal presence in the lower right hand corner.  A small cat tries to get the attention of a woman sleeping in a lounge chair.  We see only her head, and she in no way dominates this painting.  Discovering her is a small surprise.  She is one more incident in the whole scene.  Bonnard very cleverly controls what we see and when we see it.

Interior, 1913, Vernonnet

We glimpse Marthe trimming her nails in the mirror.  Bonnard, like a lot of movie directors, gave mirrors a kind of revelatory power, showing the activity in an apparently empty room.  Light spills in from the left from an unseen window.

Dining Room in the Country, 1913, Vernonnet

A famous and magnificent painting that takes us across a table, through the door, and far out into the distance while still keeping us on the painting surface dazzled by the play of brilliant colors.  We travel in a circle from the table to the chair to Marthe at the window to the outdoors and then back through the door to the flowers in a small pitcher on a sideboard.  As we travel we pass through color transitions of cool to warm to cool again and back to warm.  The primary drama in this and so much of Bonnard's work is the outdoor light coming indoors.

These paintings show rooms in Bonnard's home at Vernonnet, not far from Monet's Giverny north of Paris.  Monet's home and gardens at Giverny are now a museum.  Bonnard's home at Vernonnet remains a private residence, though the owners have done much to preserve the the original appearance of the house when Bonnard lived there.

Bonnard's home at Vernonnet, Ma Roulotte, the first country home that he bought in 1912.  He lived and painted there until 1939.

Pierre Bonnard with Marthe de Meligny at Vernonnet in 1912 shortly after he bought the house.
Bonnard and Marthe lived together until her death in 1942.  They married in 1925 after living together for 30 years.  It's likely that they married so late because Bonnard's family objected. Also, Bonnard continued to have affairs even while he lived with Marthe, but he always came back to her.  Marthe came from a lower class background and apparently had a past.  When they met, Bonnard was 26, and she told him that she was 16.  In fact, she was 24.  Her original name was not Marthe de Meligny, but Maria Boursin.  She was from a small town near Bourges.  Marthe broke off all contact with her family for reasons that remain unknown when she left home.  She had just arrived in Paris when she met Bonnard in 1893. Bonnard was the affluent son of a successful lawyer when he met Marthe.   Marthe worked in a shop sewing artificial flowers for funeral wreaths to scratch a bare living.

Marthe de Meligny with her cat.

One of many photos that Bonnard took of Marthe nude for future paintings.  
He took this one in Paris about 1899 - 1900.

Marthe remained Bonnard's muse and companion for 49 years until her death in 1942.  She remains a mysterious character who concealed much about herself.  She did not tell Bonnard that she had changed her name until after they were married in 1925.  Friends and neighbors described Marthe as almost silent and withdrawn, always on the periphery of any conversation.  As she aged, she became more neurotic, spending much of her time bathing and taking her husband on trips to various spas so she could bathe some more. She did not suffer her husband's infidelities quietly.  She demanded that he destroy any paintings of women, especially nude women, that were not her.  Some of those survive.  One such model and mistress Renée Monchaty committed suicide in 1925 shortly after Bonnard and Marthe married.  Bonnard was devastated and kept at least one painting he made of her all his life.

The Provencal Carafe, 1912 - 1915, Vernonnet

Marthe seen across the table with their dachshund Poucette.  Marthe never looks toward us or the artist in Bonnard's many paintings of her.  She always averts her gaze.

Nude in an Interior, 1935, Vernonnet

A painting that comes very close to abstraction.  Marthe slips into the picture behind a door frame to keep it back in the realm of the perceptual.  The field of blue green at the bottom turns back into a counter-top.   The other quadrilaterals of color become walls, wall paper, a curtain, floors, and rugs again.

Marthe spent much time bathing, and Bonnard painted her many times doing that in a basin and in a tub.  He painted her nude for the entire span of her life.  She almost always appears young in his paintings, even when she was in her 70s.

Nude Before the Daylight, 1908, Paris.  Marthe is 39 in this painting.

Marthe applies perfume in this beautiful painting of her standing after a bath in a light filled room.  She looks to my eye to be in her twenties, but in fact she was almost 40.

La Source,  1917, Vernonnet.  Marthe is 48.

Photo by Bonnard of Marthe posing in the bath room for a painting, 1912, Vernonnet

The tub today in Le Bosquet, the Bonnard home at Le Cannet

I don't know if this is the original bath or a reconstruction in the house at Le Cannet.

In the Bath, 1925, Vernonnet.  

This is among the first of Bonnard's paintings of Marthe in the bath tub. Though she looks like she's in her 20s, she was 56 years old.

The Large Bath, 1939, Le Cannet.  Marthe is 70

As the bathtub paintings progressed over the years, that modest little tiled bathroom became a glittering jeweled paradise of brilliant colors.  Marthe becomes a disembodied floating field of rose.  Even the dachshund Poucette plays a role as the dark foil anchoring all that sparkling color in place.

Nude in the Bathtub, 1940, Le Cannet.  Marthe is 72.

In these last paintings that sparkle and shine with their own interior light, Marthe looks ageless even though she was an old woman near the end of her life.

Crouching Nude, 1940, Le Cannet.  Marthe is 72.

Dark Nude, 1942, Le Cannet.  Bonnard's last painting of Marthe.  She was 73.

Bonnard and Marthe divided the year between their home in Vernonnet and a house in the south of France near the Mediterranean coast in the Alpes Maritimes, in Le Cannet, a house called Le Bosquet.  They spent their summers in Vernonnet and wintered in Le Cannet.  When the Second World War broke out in 1939, they sold their home in Vernonnet and moved into their home in Le Cannet permanently.

When World War II began, Bonnard was an old man in his 70s. He decided, perhaps wisely, that there wasn’t much that an aging artist in declining health could do about the War. So, he decided to stay out of its way, and by great good luck managed to avoid the air raids, the fighting, and the Gestapo. The Vichy government tried unsuccessfully to persuade Bonnard to paint a portrait of Marshall Petain, the leader of the collaborationist regime. Bonnard wanted as little to do with the Vichy government as possible.

The Bonnard Home Le Bosquet, Le Cannet

This house forms part of a museum devoted to Bonnard and his work, and is open for public tours.  I have no idea if the interior furnishings are original or reconstructions.

Bonnard with his dachshund Poucette in 1941 at Le Cannet

By the last years of his life, Bonnard made that cousin of the Impressionist brushstroke into something more than a shorthand record of a passing moment. The brushstrokes in his last paintings become shorter and larger. The colors come unmoored from perceptual reality and become more imaginative. While Bonnard’s paintings were always filled with light, toward the end of his life, they glowed with their own light. The kitchen, the bedroom, the garden, and especially the bath began to take on a radiant almost other-worldly quality. I doubt that there is anything religious or even spiritual in these works. I think these paintings show the intensity of experience of someone who knows that his time is limited and that soon he shall never pass this way again.

Vase of Flowers, 1945, Le Cannet

The Red Cupboard, 1939, Le Cannet

The Bonnard Garden at Le Bosquet, Le Cannet.

Bonnard's gardens were never very formal or organized, and the same is true of his paintings of them.

The Garden at Midday, 1943, Le Cannet

This is his last and perhaps greatest painting of his garden.

The Almond Tree, 1946 - 1947, Le Cannet

One of Bonnard's last paintings.

Starting sometime in the mid 1930s, Bonnard painted a series of undated self portraits in his bathroom mirror.  For an alleged painter of pleasure, these are unexpected and disturbing images.  Brightly lit as they are, they are not brightly colored.  They all have a lonely anxious quality.
I can only imagine that Bonnard did what a lot of people do in the bathroom mirror in old age, consider the past course of life and see signs of its anticipated end.

Bonnard died in 1947 at age 79.

Bonnard's reputation as an artist went in and out of the critical doghouse in his lifetime and still today 73 years after his death.  Picasso famously hated Bonnard's work:
He never goes beyond his own sensibility. He doesn't know how to choose. When Bonnard paints a sky, perhaps he first paints it blue, more or less the way it looks. Then he looks a little longer and sees some mauve in it, so he adds a touch or two of mauve, just to hedge. Then he decides that maybe it's a little pink too, so there's no reason not to add some pink. The result is a pot-pourri of indecision. If he looks long enough, he winds up adding a little yellow, instead of making up his mind what colour the sky really ought to be. Painting can't be done that way. Painting isn't a question of sensibility: it's a matter of seizing the power, taking over from nature, not expecting her to supply you with information and good advice ... that's what I hold against Bonnard. I don't want to be moved by him. He's not really a modern painter: he obeys nature; he doesn't transcend it.
Like so many of Picasso's comments about other artists, he reveals much about himself as he upbraids Bonnard's work.  He faults Bonnard for not being Picasso.
Matisse on the other hand loved Bonnard's work, publicly praising it and defending him in the face of hostile critics.  Indeed, Bonnard's work is much closer in spirit to Matisse.

Bonnard's work always split the critics.  His posthumous reputation reminds me of a favorite line in Cocteau's Orpheus:  "But the public loves me."  "The public is alone."
Bonnard was long a darling of collectors who donated his paintings to museums only reluctantly, so unwilling were they to part with them.  A lot of my painting professors admired his work enthusiastically and recommended it to us their students.
Avant-garde critics always dismissed Bonnard.  In his lifetime, they considered him to be a modernist drop-out retreating from the demands of the age for the safety of the "juste milieu." Those same critics said the same thing about Matisse after 1917.  Even now, there are hostile critics who consider his work to be so much consumerist fluff.  Sons and daughters of the grande-bourgeoisie in tenure-track university positions call him a "bourgeois," a designation that would have surprised Bonnard's truly bourgeois neighbors scandalized by the goings-on in his house.

Like Matisse at the end of his life, Bonnard in his maturity influenced American painters.  I've already mentioned Diebenkorn's epiphany before a Bonnard painting in the Phillips Collection.  Bonnard's work opened the road for American color field painting, and artists such as Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman.

Bonnard's palette

Edouard Vuillard, Portrait of Bonnard, ca. 1930 -35

Edouard Vuillard was a close friend of Bonnard since their days together as students at the Academie Julian.  Vuillard too specialized in domestic interiors.  Vuillard mostly painted other people's homes.  Bonnard painted his own exclusively.

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