Painting from Memory


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For 20 years, the man mostly puttered about his house in the south of France. If the paintings displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current show, “The Late Interiors” is any guide, Pierre Bonnard spent around 20 years or so in his pajamas. This, through the 1930s and ’40s, which weren’t exactly placid times on the Continent. In 1942, for instance, he painted “Marthe Entering the Room.” It memorializes the morning that Bonnard’s wife passed from one room of the house to another. To add to the excitement, she also seems to be carrying a cup. It may even be Bonnard’s breakfast latte.

It would have been difficult to predict the development of Pierre Bonnard’s art if you’d known him in his 20s, back in the late 19th century. He was hanging around Montmartre with the likes of Toulouse-Lautrec, making lively and sophisticated illustrations for champagne advertisements. He fell in with a group of young avant-garde artists who called themselves Les Nabis — The Prophets. The central theoretician of Les Nabis was Maurice Denis, who famously proclaimed, “It is well to remember that a picture before being a battle horse, a nude woman, or some anecdote — is essentially a plain surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.” The movement had also been influenced by Gauguin via Paul Sérusier, an early member of the group who’d studied informally with him. It was through Gauguin’s influence that Sérusier started to think of color and form as tools that could be manipulated in order to create the “feel” of a scene or a moment. You could say these artists were more interested in what it is like to see than in what is seen.

Bonnard had only so much patience for the posing it takes to maintain an avant-garde movement. He was even less interested in the mystical symbolism that some of The Prophets were drawn to, the fanciful references to the occult. By the first few years of the 20th century, the members of Les Nabis had drifted apart. Bonnard began to retreat from the city, spending more time on his own formal studies in the countryside. By the mid-1920s, he’d pulled out altogether. He had settled into his little hideout in Le Cannet, with a view of the Mediterranean.

As the storm clouds continued to gather in Europe throughout the 1930s, Bonnard was slowly perfecting his sense of color and composition. His entire world narrowed to its necessary elements. All he needed was a room, a scene from his window. The movement of Marthe from one room to another was, for Bonnard, within the category of the momentous. But he didn’t paint these moments in order to record or document them. He wasn’t interested in that kind of accuracy. That’s the strange trick of Bonnard’s painting. He studied the world and then reconstructed it, sometimes making major alterations in accordance with what he preferred. Bonnard painted from drawings, sketches, a series of notes about how a moment felt to him. A painting like “Work Table,” which seems so of-the-moment, could take Bonnard years and years to complete. By the time he was done, the freshness of the scene had long ago passed into hazy memory. Colors, in Bonnard, are often fully concocted from his imagination. Objects are arranged in physically impossible ways that are, nevertheless, true to the picture that had developed in Bonnard’s mind.

Thus, the central idea of Les Nabis — the radical reorientation of painting from direct representation to symbolic representation — came to fruition in the late Bonnard. Those who don’t understand Bonnard accuse him of being a late-blooming Impressionist, a painting reactionary swimming against the tide. Picasso famously exclaimed, “That’s piddling work!” It’s easy to understand the misconception. A painting like “In the Bathroom” from 1940 isn’t a view from inside a bathroom so much as the “impression” left after having glanced into the bathroom. The thinking of Bonnard’s critics is, well, Monet pretty much covered that territory 50 years beforehand. Christian Zervos’ labeling of Bonnard as a “latter-day Impressionist” in 1947 has been repeated over and over again ever since. These critics see Bonnard painting as if Cubism and abstraction had never happened in the years between 1890 and 1940.

Yet there is a significant difference between what was happening in Impressionism and what was happening in Bonnard’s late painting. Impressionism generally focuses on the sliver of experience that exists just after perception but before the full synthesis of understanding. Its technique is basically deconstructive because it breaks down a coherent visual experience to the point where one can pick out the constituent parts. If you look at any one section of Monet’s epochal “Impression, Sunrise” (1873) it becomes just disconnected smears of color. Impressionists want to show us the elements that lurk at the boundary between seeing something and understanding what you’ve seen. The term “impressionism,” initially coined as a put-down, is thus a pretty good name. Impressionists wanted to paint in that transitional area of perception because it opened up so much new territory in what one “sees” in a painting. It was a new way of thinking about painting, a way to get beyond what many considered, by the late 19th century, to be a rather stale set of painterly tricks to make two dimensions look like three. Impressionism threw direct realism away in the name of experimenting with reality — for instance, how two blobs of pure color on a canvas produce, for the observer, a relationship of shape and form. For the Impressionists, veering away from reality brought us back much closer to it.

Bonnard is a direct descendant and beneficiary of the Impressionist revolution. There’s no question about that. Impressionism freed him up to use color to capture the mood and feeling of a room without worrying about literalness. Impressionism gave Bonnard technical tools as well. Look at the way he dabs and glops and smears in a painting like “Still Life with Plum Pits.” There are crazy marks all over that painting. But they all work when you put them together. That’s another Impressionist trick, the painting that falls apart into gloppy attacks of the paintbrush the closer you look at it.

“The White Interior,” 1932. Pierre Bonnard
Musée de Grenoble
Photography © Musée de Grenoble.

© 2009 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

But remember how Bonnard worked. He didn’t go directly from perception to painting. He didn’t set up his easel in the dining room and go to work. Instead, he waited and he pondered. He made pencil sketches of the basket of oranges that might not be there tomorrow, took notes about the way the door was open just so. He’d leave the painting alone for a few years and then go back to it when the time was ripe. Bonnard paints from understanding back into perception. That’s why his work is so often described as “intelligent.” Bonnard is not dealing with the moment of recognition, but with experiences that have been sitting in the brain for a long time. The fact is, we are always working on the images we collect as we move along, living. We’re always going through memories, altering them, adding and subtracting, recreating the crap of our minds to fit the ongoing narrative that makes you, you and me, me. There’s an entire world in our heads. This world corresponds to the one we live in, but not exactly. It has its own rules, its own meaning. Bonnard is painting from that world. His paintings have a superficial resemblance to Impressionist paintings because they deal with that same place, that space between perception and understanding. But the more you look at them, the more deliberate they become, the more you realize that they’ve been “worked on” over and over again. The great drama of “Table in Front of the Window” (1934-5) is the boundary between inside and outside. In Bonnard’s mind, the window frame has taken on massive and foreboding proportions. It cancels the outstretched lines of the tablecloth, ends them. Outside things are curvy and circular. Inside, the objects have more definite boundaries. The notebook and the platter of fruit are strongly defined. A wispy figure, probably Marthe, hovers at the right edge of the painting, barely existing. This is how the world exists in Bonnard’s mind, after he has decided what things really looked like, which objects were more important than others, how the difference between being inside and outside can be portrayed.

This brings us back to Gauguin and Les Nabis. In his youth, as a member of Les Nabis, Bonnard had internalized the idea that painting is not tethered to the immediacy of perception. He realized that it was possible to paint from the imagination rather than painting from nature. Look at “The White Interior” from 1932. In a sense, it is the emptiest painting you could imagine. It isn’t about anything, nothing happens in it, there’s no center and objects clutter every space of the canvas. Yet it’s a fascinating painting. There’s Marthe again, almost blending into the carpet (one wonders what this says about their domestic relationship, but that’s another matter). Every wavy line, every strange color in the painting is carefully chosen in order to portray what it feels like to be in that room, not what it looks like so much as what it feels like. The outside is mostly just a chaos that disrupts the top right corner of the painting. I love the radiator in particular. It shows up in a number of Bonnard’s paintings. It’s clear that the radiator has become strangely significant in Bonnard’s life. He often paints it more carefully than other objects. The fireplace, too, draws him in. In fact, that is exactly how he views it, as a perceptual funnel that brings the eye along into its center.

To get these feelings out and onto the canvas took an immense amount of work. It took detailed examination into the way that any experience grows and transforms once we own it. Puttering around in his pajamas year after year, Pierre Bonnard came to realize how huge is every little experience, how much can be done with each thing that happens. • 18 February 2009