Figures in Rooms, Rooms with Figures

Peter Campbell

We all love Bonnard now. In straw polls he is in everyone’s top three. Unexpected people turn out to have been fans: Francis Bacon liked his brushwork. It was not always so. ‘Pierre Bonnard. Is he a Great Painter?’ Cahiers d’art asked at the time of his death in 1947. They decided he wasn’t and that only those whose taste was confined to the facile and pleasing would say he was. Nor was he much regarded in America, where a definition of the Modern was being worked out that would exclude him. He was Picasso’s ‘pet aversion’; Françoise Gilot records some of the things Picasso said: ‘That’s not painting, what he does. He never goes beyond his own sensibility. He doesn’t know how to choose. When Bonnard paints a sky 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 ... The result is a pot-pourri of indecision.’

Today things are different. One reason is that art historians have turned to science and found that looking is not simple. You can still find Bonnard pleasing, but ‘facile’ is no longer a possible description. What some saw as sentimental, melting, colour for colour’s sake, is now analysed in terms of the psychology of perception. Bonnard the conscious, intellectual picture-maker, who speaks in his diary about ‘crude seeing and intelligent seeing’, has our attention.

This new interest in the way Bonnard’s pictures work has shifted the emphasis away from his private life and the place it had in his art – which can’t be a bad thing. A few facts are enough to explain why the paintings, particularly those done in the house in the hills above the Riviera, show what they do: glimpses through doors, nakedness made reasonable by being in a bathroom or a bedroom; table tops, views from windows. Photographs confirm that all these subjects were provided by a few small rooms. Bonnard’s domestic arrangements were curious and constricting. Marthe, his mistress and later his wife, with whom he lived most of his life, and who dominated that part of it which saw the production of his greatest paintings, isolated him from other human beings – other painters in particular. He met her in 1893. She was, like him, in her mid-twenties, very small (she said she was 16) and secretive – only when they finally married in 1925 did he find out her real name. Timothy Hyman quotes descriptions of her: ‘a touchy elf’, ‘muse and gaoler’, ‘an uneasy tormenting sprite’, a person with a ‘persecution complex’ who didn’t want other painters visiting Bonnard to ‘steal his tricks’. She had a ‘weirdly savage, harsh voice’, and ‘hopped about on very high heels like some bright-plumaged bird’.

It is not that Hyman’s Bonnard or Sarah Whitfield’s essay in the Tate catalogue – both excellent, and usefully complementing each other – gives a very different account of the relationship from the one that limited anecdotal evidence had built up in the years since Bonnard’s death (although we do now know that her physical illnesses were real), but rather that we can accept Marthe’s importance in Bonnard’s life without seeing their relationship as the primary source of his power as a painter. It is possible to agree with the critic Sargy Mann that ‘it was his desire to draw and paint her, more than anything else, that brought about the development of his style, from its brilliant decorative beginnings to the formal strength and realism of its maturity’, without trying to find validation for that style in personal tragedy, as John Berger apparently did. For Berger, Hyman writes, ‘the late nudes were the sole redeeming component in an oeuvre otherwise “intimate, contemplative, privileged”; it was the “tragedy” of his relationship with Marthe that “ensured his survival as a painter”.’

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