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Complicated Bliss

Pierre Bonnard: The Late Interiors

Metropolitan Museum of Art

There is a tropical heat in Pierre Bonnard's late paintings. This subtle hedonist, a contemplative spirit with king-sized obsessions, regards the colors on his palette as objects of delectation. Each stroke of alizarin or orange or green paint that he works into the canvas has a life-giving power. Bonnard's canvases are blossoms at the peak of their beauty, and because there is a strong element of improvisation and risk involved in his technique, we are constantly reminded that beauty is unreliable, that blossoms will decay, that ripe fruit will rot, and that the bright afternoon sun will fade to darkest night. No other artist offers such complicated bliss.

"Pierre Bonnard: The Late Interiors," at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is an extraordinarily satisfying exhibition. Both in Europe and the United States there has been no lack of Bonnard shows in recent years, but of the ones I have seen, which include "Pierre Bonnard: Early and Late" at the Phillips Collection in Washington in 2002 and the retrospective that came to the Museum of Modern Art in 1998, this is the most cogent and coherent. Dita Amory, the curator for the Metropolitan exhibition, was right to focus on the artist's fascination with the interior of Le Bosquet, the little house in the village of Le Cannet overlooking Cannes. Bonnard bought the house in 1926 and lived in it year round for the eight years leading up to his death in 1947. Amory demonstrates how Bonnard turned these modest rooms into a laboratory where the discoveries of the Impressionists, by then half-a-century old, were renewed in entirely unexpected ways.

The installation, which is not strictly chronological, emphasizes Bonnard's tendency to move back and forth between relatively greater and lesser degrees of naturalism and abstraction. This gives the show something of the quality of a meditation, which is appropriate for Bonnard. His late self-portraits, two of which are included at the Metropolitan, suggest the asceticism of a Chinese sage, with close-cropped hair and long, narrow, all-seeing eyes. In the canvases of his last twenty years, which Bonnard did in his studio rather than from direct observation, the Impressionist insistence on working in front of the motif gives way to memories of the motif, so that perception turns out to be not so much a reality as a dream.

Visitors to the Metropolitan may initially be surprised to find that none of the paintings of Marthe, Bonnard's wife, in her bathroom have been included. In those supremely strange canvases, Bonnard invented what amounts to an entirely new variation on the theme of the naked goddess, a Venus in a white-tiled bathroom, the bathtub sometimes suggesting a sarcophagus. Many observers have come to regard them as the climax of Bonnard's career. While an interesting argument can be made for that idea, there is something equally attractive about the focus of this show, which is on Bonnard's miraculous transformations of ordinary objects. Although many of the canvases contain figures, in these works the women Bonnard liked to paint, often based on Marthe, tend to play a supporting role, and we are mostly engaged by the animation of the inanimate.

Here the starring roles go to baskets, dishes, fruits, flowers, chairs, tables, and windows. The figures, often at the periphery, suggest puppeteers who are arranging the comestibles on the stage that is the dining room table. Going through the exhibition--which is a manageable size, with some fifty paintings and a generous selection of works on paper in pencil, gouache, and watercolor--I kept thinking of something that Balthus said he learned from Bonnard, namely that you could make a painting out of anything, even something as ordinary as a radiator. This show, which includes some remarkable studies of radiators, is about Bonnard's ability to make the commonplace ecstatic.

Bonnard is the most thoroughly idiosyncratic of all the great twentieth- century painters. What sustains him is not traditional ideas of pictorial structure and order, but rather some unique combination of visual taste, psychological insight, and poetic feeling. He also has a quality that might be characterized as perceptual wit--an instinct for what will work in a painting. Almost invariably he recognizes the precise point where his voluptuousness may be getting out of hand, where he needs to introduce an ironic note. Bonnard's wit has everything to do with the eccentric nature of his compositions. He finds it funny to sneak a figure into a corner, or have a cat staring out at the viewer. His metaphoric caprices have a comic edge, as when he turns a figure into a pattern in the wallpaper. And when he imagines a basket of fruit as a heap of emeralds and rubies and diamonds, he does so with the panache of a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

The paintings are tremendously odd, with their off-kilter compositions and inconsistently rendered objects and peek-a-boo women--and yet the ultimate effect is of a blazing formal power, even if it is a formal power that is achieved through means that some might think un-formal if not anti-formal. One of the less widely exhibited masterworks in this show is Interior: Dining Room, formerly in the Mellon collection and now in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Here Bonnard turns his dining room into a sunset vision, the walls as luridly multicolored as clouds hit by the sun's last rays, except that the clouds are up-ended, suggesting striped wallpaper or painted wainscoting. One of the enigmas of Bonnard's work--and the question must certainly be raised with the Virginia Museum painting--is why his warm-on-warm color orchestrations, while often approaching the exaggerations of kitsch, rarely go over the top. Especially in the 1940s, when he was working on this canvas, Bonnard liked to flirt with vulgarity. The walls in the Virginia Museum interior, composed of strokes of orange and violet and yellow paint, suggest melting sherbet. I think Bonnard knows this. He is making a joke. But just when it looks as if he has succumbed to a sort of high camp--and what could be less attractive than that?--he shifts gears. He fills the lower third of the canvas with a white table cloth, touched with elements of blue, that suggests the slow movement in a tumultuous Romantic sonata. Like Nabokov, Bonnard is saved from the excesses of his hedonism by a trickster's contrariety.

Bonnard gives the impression of working without preconceptions, allowing themes to interpenetrate and motifs to transfigure each other. When he paints a group of objects arranged on a table before a window, he mingles still life and landscape, creating a hybrid genre. Frequently in his later years he goes even further, conflating two of the great themes in Western art: the still life or interior as a celebration of bourgeois experience, and the pastoral tradition that measures mankind's present condition against some earlier, supposedly more natural condition. In Bonnard's late interiors and still lifes, the dining room and the sitting room, the basket of fruit and the vase of flowers, the table laid for a meal--these are all recast as pastoral visions, as indoor Arcadian landscapes. Pastoral, as it evolved in the poetry of Theocritus and Virgil, reflected an urban yearning for country simplicity, but the simple life was not always so simple, for shepherds had their troubles and pleasure always turned out to be transitory. Bonnard knows this. This most sophisticated of modern artists paints the interior spaces in his house in the south of France with the same eye that Theocritus and Virgil brought to the lives of their shepherds, an eye both loving and critical, an eye that joins and juxtaposes elements of naturalism, lyricism, and comedy.

While Bonnard's feeling for the poetry of interior spaces can be related to a strain in European art that includes Carpaccio, van Eyck, and Vermeer, he rejects the European interest in delimitedness, in the clear articulation of space, in objects that are so thoroughly objectified that they transcend their objecthood--a development that culminated in Chardin's sublime art. Bonnard is more interested in meanderings and mood shifts, in irresolution and dissolution. While Chardin's still lifes tend to have clearly defined climaxes, Bonnard prefers to pull away from a climax. His compositions depend on a process of decomposition. The arrangements can be un- or even anti-geometric. He likes the fragment, the vignette, the skewed panorama, the epic-in-miniature. And the Southern sunlight is the great unifier, drawing disparate elements into a luminous whole. The result is a disorderly opulence.

Dita Amory has wisely included a generous selection of works on paper. They are essential to our understanding of Bonnard's working method. Bonnard regarded drawing as his primary opportunity to directly confront the world, after which his paintings, done in the studio, could develop an increasingly ambiguous relationship with reality, and even suggest a world of dreams. It was through his drawings, generally done in humble pencil, that he discovered the particular elements--a figure's pose, an arrangement of fruit, a juxtaposition of furniture--that would then be incorporated in the paintings that he worked on over long periods of time. Bonnard's pencil drawings announce the first steps in his dissociation from reality, with their curious areas of penciled dots and dashes that manage to suggest a wide range of textures and colors and spatial relationships.

Especially fascinating are the little datebooks in which he noted down still life elements or fragments of figures or landscape. These are ordinary datebooks, the sort that one uses for appointments, and in addition to Bonnard's daily notations about the weather there are vignettes of a table top, a woman, a landscape. Bonnard may well have made his drawings on the particular day marked in the book, and I think there is reason to believe that he found something appealing in the sketchbook that doubled as a daybook. He was marking off the days and the seasons as they passed--again like the ancient poets, who wrote about the particular work that farmers and shepherds did at particular times of the year. These are Bonnard's Works and Days, a how-to book about the artist's life in the countryside, the customized manual from which his paintings emerge.

When Bonnard bought Le Bosquet in 1926, he was on the verge of his sixtieth birthday. He was in retreat in the country, which is itself a classical ideal. He had achieved renown already as a young man, one of the artists in the circle around the magazine La Revue Blanche, a visual poet of the fin-de-siecle, painting intimate scenes of bohemian life and designing prints and posters that have become defining images of the period. Bonnard and his friend Vuillard created an irreplaceable pictorial record of one of the great patrons and muses of the period, Misia Sert, who was married for a time to a founder of La Revue Blanche, and who in the art of her painter friends is seen reading or playing the piano in interiors where the floral wallpapers and fabrics suggest a forest in a medieval legend. The cult of pastoral life was very much a part of Misia's world. In 1902 Bonnard did illustrations for Longus's Daphnis and Chloe . And between 1906 and 1919 he would paint, for Misia and others, a series of murals on rural themes in which time tends to bend, with contemporary figures echoing the lives of classical shepherds and nymphs, while classical figures are painted with a familiarity that suggests that they are in fact our contemporaries.

Among the artists Bonnard would always revere were two of the great pastoralists who were working in the early twentieth century, Maillol and Renoir. Although Renoir's work is not much admired today, in the early twentieth century his nudes and his landscapes were closely studied by Picasso, Matisse, and--as we can see here--Bonnard. One of the strongest influences on Bonnard's colors, almost melting together, is surely the later style of Renoir, who lived in the south of France and whom Bonnard often visited in the years leading up to the old Impressionist's death in 1919.

While there are passages in the still lifes at the Metropolitan where Chardin's intense scrutiny of single objects comes to mind, the discursiveness of Bonnard's style in his late work moves away from the classical architecture of French painting and brings us very close to many of the sophisticated tastes of the fin-de-siecle. Japanese and Chinese painting, which were being enthusiastically studied by artists in those years, are surely an influence, with their curious formats and asymmetrically arranged objects--their general sense of a world caught off guard. So, I imagine, are Monet's Water Lilies, which were only beginning to be produced in the first years of the new century and some of which were installed in the Orangerie in Paris in 1927, where they had the effect of shattering the enclosed dimensions of the gallery, of turning an urban space into a watery garden where near and far and up and down could no longer be neatly plotted.

I suspect that more than painting contributed to the evolution of Bonnard's art. When Bonnard started out, art nouveau was introducing a radically new way of thinking about interior spaces. (Bonnard did some furniture designs.) The emphasis was always on natural forms, whether in wallpapers or fabrics or furniture or ceramics or glass. Interiors were saturated with flowers and vines and shrubberies. The Galle glass and the furnishings by Guimard and Majorelle served to melt away the sharp edges of the old four-square rooms, turning them into rustic retreats, albeit of an exquisitely artificial kind. I think that this idea, which Bonnard would have absorbed as a young man, remained somewhere in the back of his mind, emboldening him, after he retreated to the south of France, to conflate interior spaces and exterior spaces.

Bonnard continued to paint landscapes until the very end of his life. He responded fervently to the extraordinary foliage that surrounded his house. The red rooftops of Cannes and the Mediterranean beyond were abiding subjects. The last canvas on which he worked was a tiny study of a blossoming almond tree, its white blooms suggesting an ecstatic dusting of snow. In those later years, however, his own house became more and more a sort of metaphorical grove or grotto, a place of final retreat at the center of the sanctuary that the south had turned out to be for him in the war years and their immediate aftermath. In Bonnard's late interiors and still lifes, the pastoral tradition is brought inside and inward, becoming a dimension of the artist's mental world. For Bonnard, the pastoral had never been the cool, almost mathematically lucid realm that many associate, not entirely accurately, with Poussin. He always gravitated toward the more casually ordered pastoral vision that had begun to evolve just after 1500 in the Venetian paintings of Giorgione. This was a world of ardors and ambiguities, where happiness was never assured and love was always unpredictable. (This particular version of pastoral was the subject of a memorable exhibition, "The Pastoral Landscape: The Legacy of Venice," organized by the late Robert Cafritz at the National Gallery and the Phillips Collection twenty years ago.)

The key work in the Venetian pastoral tradition is the Concert champetre in the Louvre, nowadays officially attributed to Titian, although I am in agreement with the scholars who believe that this curious vision, with its rustic shepherd and urban dandy and two naked women, is from the hand of Giorgione. What characterizes the Giorgionesque tradition is a preference for free-flowing, anti-architectonic compositions, a suspicion that private meanings will always trump public avowals, and a belief that storytelling ought to be discursive, open-ended. These ideas, developed by Giorgione and re- invented two hundred years later by Watteau, find their most powerful twentieth- century expression in the work of Bonnard. For Giorgione and Watteau, the pastoral was anything but a neat equation, and Bonnard makes it messier still. By turning his own home into the nymph's and the shepherd's final retreat, he creates a new variation on the pastoral, one that is droll and strange and altogether unpredictable--a pastoral place where dream and reality bump into each other, confound each other. These paintings are hymns to a delicious confusion, an equivocal paradise, where Eve's apples have been brought in from the garden and arranged on the table along with many other temptations.

There is only one thing wrong with this exhibition, and that is its location. My heart sank when I realized that once again a great show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art had been consigned downstairs to the Lehman Wing, the same awful spaces into which last fall's Morandi show was shoehorned. These galleries are hardly more than corridors, with appallingly poor lighting and no room to get back from the paintings. That the Metropolitan--a museum full of beautiful galleries eloquently proportioned, with fine ambient light--can find no better place for these essential exhibitions is deeply discouraging. I am sure there is some practical explanation as to why Morandi and Bonnard have been so poorly served, but practicalities are not everything.

What we ought to be concentrating on right now, at a time when the museum has a new director and may be moving in new directions, is the extent to which these two brilliant modern exhibitions offer a blueprint for the future. Although it is Thomas Campbell, the museum's new director, who wrote the forward to the Bonnard show, both the Morandi and Bonnard exhibitions were given the go-ahead during the directorship of Philippe de Montebello, and they stand as yet another demonstration of his museological genius. Both exhibitions focus on artists whose towering achievements have sometimes been relegated to the periphery in favor of a modernist orthodoxy based on ideas of fast-forward evolution and the violent overthrow of tradition. Both exhibitions challenge museumgoers to reconsider all the old cliches about what is radical and what is conservative in modern art. (The Museum of Modern Art has never presented a show of Morandi's paintings, and the Bonnard retrospective mounted there ten years ago was a confused affair, significantly inferior to Amory's exhibition.)

In his forward to the Morandi catalogue, Philippe de Montebello observes "Morandi never fit into the declamatory, self-aggrandizing mode of the most prominent twentieth-century masters." De Montebello makes it quite clear what he has in mind, speaking of Morandi as a "marginalized" figure, and concluding that "the time is ripe for a vaster appreciation of Morandi's rightful place in the canon of modern art." As for the Bonnard show, the fact that de Montebello gave the exhibition the green light would seem to reflect his own sense that late Bonnard is another achievement that has still not quite earned its "rightful place in the canon of modern art." But as de Montebello surely knows, the situation is even more interesting than that. Bonnard created a profoundly powerful art without reference to many of the canonical discoveries of modern art. His late paintings would have been possible even if Cubism and abstract art had never happened. By inviting New Yorkers to study Morandi and the late Bonnard, then, de Montebello is urging them to contemplate an expanded history of twentieth-century art. We must hope that Thomas Campbell will have the self- confidence and the heterodox sophistication to encourage similar experiments in the future.

These two exhibitions consolidate the role that the Metropolitan has increasingly played in the ongoing life of art in New York and the United States, as the place where a large heterogeneous audience gathers to reflect freshly on what art has achieved--and where artists go to reinvigorate themselves, to grapple with the past that is our only guide to the future. By putting Morandi and Bonnard in what amounts to the basement, the museum may be revealing a certain anxiety about what precisely is past and what is future. And yet even down there, amid the grievously low wattage, this Bonnard show turns out to be a defining moment. Rarely has such an idiosyncratic painterly odyssey yielded such magisterial results. Opening in deepest winter, when the temperatures were freezing and the financial markets were in the doldrums, this great exhibition is a welcome glimpse of paradise--a domestic paradise, and therefore an attainable paradise.

Jed Perl is The New Republic's art critic.

By Jed Perl