Thursday, March 26, 2009

Pierre Bonnard, "Late Interiors", at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

About a month ago I had an appointment on the Upper East Side; afterward, I had some spare time and decided to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I first wandered through the Egyptian collections and the American Wing, then thought I would go to the other side of the building, to the modern collection, and, as I had my last time at the Met, sit on the bench facing Jackson Pollock's Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), and zone out for a while. On my way, though, I saw a sign pointing toward a special exhibit of works by Pierre Bonnard, The Late Interiors. Bonnard is an artist to whose works I've had limited exposure, and he was cited as an influence by Mark Crawford, so I decided to check it out. I was astounded. I didn't have as much time to enjoy it as I would have liked, so I went back several days ago for a more leisurely viewing. Below are images of some of the paintings that I found most interesting, taken from the Met's website, along with my comments.

Pierre Bonnard (French, 1867–1947)
Work Table, 1926/1937
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon (2006.128.12)
Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington. © 2009 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

Work Table exemplifies several characteristics of Bonnard's art. The composition is elaborate: note the contrast between the rectangularity of the table and of the objects on it with the concentric circles of the carpet. There are ambiguities about scale and perspective: check the lengths of the table's legs, and how its surface appears to curve upward--or is the rear of the table, in fact, raised like an easel? Subjects that would likely command more attention in other paintings--in this instance, a dog, cat and kitten--are put near the margin. Although it can't be seen in this image, the artist's signature is at the upper left corner of a sketchbook on the table.

Pierre Bonnard (French, 1867–1947)
Before Dinner, 1924
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975 (1975.1.156)
© 2009 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

Before Dinner has a formal composition, with the carefully set table and the woman (the cook?) standing behind, hands clasped, facing forward; however, the formality is broken by the image of Bonnard's wife, Marthe, seated at the left, also with clasped hands, but turned away from the table and the other woman. Note the splash of white at the upper right (reflection off a silver platter?) and the white of Marthe's boots at the lower left. Revisiting a Bonnard painting often results in seeing previously unobserved details: during the time I spent looking at this painting in the gallery, I didn't notice the small dog emerging from behind Marthe's chair.

Pierre Bonnard (French, 1867–1947)
Flowers on the Mantelpiece at Le Cannet, 1927
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon
© MBA Lyon/Photo Alain Basset. © 2009 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

Bonnard takes a typical still life subject in Flowers on the Mantelpiece at Le Cannet and transcends it by placing Marthe, half-seen, at the right. The flowers have a wilder aspect than in most floral paintings: note how the stalks of some extend far from the bowl and central mass of blossoms, drooping and then curving upwards.

Pierre Bonnard (French, 1867–1947)
The White Interior, 1932
Musée de Grenoble
Photography © Musée de Grenoble. © 2009 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

In The White Interior, Bonnard exhibits many variations on whiteness: the table, the wall, the door (bisected into two shades), and the radiator (which appeared less bluish in the gallery than in this image). All of this contrasts to the boldness of the bright, burnt sienna colored chair. This painting displays an extreme example of Bonnard's frequent marginalization of human and animal figures. Note the hunched figure of Marthe by the corner of the table, painted in muted tones, and the calico cat she is feeding, next to the red teapot near the center bottom of the canvas.

Pierre Bonnard (French, 1867–1947)
Self Portrait, ca. 1938–40
Collection Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. Purchased 1972
© 2009 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

In this Self Portrait the artist is standing in front of a mirror above a shelf with toiletries. His skin appears quite dark (Riviera sun?) in contrast to the wall behind, which is awash in light. His expression bespeaks concentration: he appears to be using his right hand to unscrew a cap from something (bottle? toothpaste tube?) he's holding in his left. The features of the right hand are clearly delineated, while those of the left are indistinct (this is not so evident in the image above as in the gallery). This painting contrasts with another, "Portrait of the Artist in the Bathroom Mirror", that is also in this exhibit, and which was painted from the same point of view several years later. In the latter, he is without glasses, which emphasizes the deep blue of his eyes, and shirtless, showing a contrast between his tanned face and pale chest. His expression is melancholy. Perhaps something can be made of the superimposition of the artist's image, in both paintings, on a cruciform background. More likely, though, that's just the way it was.

Pierre Bonnard (French, 1867–1947)
Young Women in the Garden (Renée Monchaty and Marthe Bonnard), ca. 1921–23, reworked 1945–6
Private collection
Photography © Robert Lorenzson. © 2009 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

The dominant compositional theme in Young Women in the
Garden (Renée Monchaty and Marthe Bonnard)
is of overlapping or superimposed circles or semicircles: Renée's blonde hair, the flower in her hair, the blue-green (it appeared much more green in the gallery) chair back, the table, with its blue and red striped cloth, and the platters on the table with round fruit on them. Note the bright yellow border around the table (dry grass? leaves?) that partially frames Renée. Again, Marthe is put in the margin, and rendered in muted tones.

There is a melodramatic story connected with this last painting. Renée was Bonnard's mistress for a time during the 1920s. After Marthe discovered the affair, Renée committed suicide. This painting was started in the '20s, but reworked and completed some twenty years later, after Marthe's death.

"Pierre Bonnard: Late Interiors" will remain at the Met through April 19.

Update: Another take on "Late Interiors", by Carol Gillott of Paris Breakfasts, is here. Her post includes an image of Bonnard engaged in his unusual painting technique, as well as of several of his sketches and sketchbooks that are displayed in the Met exhibit.


  1. Anonymous3:22 PM

    I've been meaning to see this exhibit, and now I can go with a little more info at hand. Thanks for this!

  2. It sounds like a great exhibit; your comments make me wish I'd motivated myself to go and see it, and now I shall. The Fauves are a fascinating and much neglected group of artists who, in recent years, are starting to receive the attention due them. Years ago I fell in love with a small museum in DC, the Phillips collection, which has a strong representation of the Fauvists like Bonnard and Vuillard. I would recommend a visit there to anyone enchanted by what they see at the Met's current exhibit.

  3. Federico C1:24 AM

    "Your comments" on Bonnard's work are not yours. You clearly lifted the words from Sarah Whitfield's catalog essay: "Fragments of an Identical World'.

    Your brazen plagiarism is astounding.

  4. Federico C: It's astounding indeed, as I've never seen the essay to which you refer.