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”.’

There was a time, it seems, when a version of Bonnard as a kind of Munch of the Riviera was easier to accommodate than one which saw him as Renoir’s and Monet’s successor. Hyman reproduces Munch’s Ashes alongside Bonnard’s Man and Woman of 1900. Bonnard’s image is less explicit, but definitely oppressive – Hyman is surely right to say that it is a way of speaking about the ‘difficult relations between male and female’. As time passes, however, the emotion in the pictures becomes more generalised. A naked woman in her bathroom or bedroom is never a neutral subject, particularly when she wears high-heeled shoes, but in the end, with Bonnard, the voyeuristic aspect, which is strong in early nudes splayed on beds, is replaced by a much more companionable intimacy between observer and observed. A model who worked for Bonnard says he did not want her to take up a pose but to move about, to be natural. Degas and Rodin used models in that way, but to different ends. Only Bonnard gave the naked body back to its surroundings, so that there is no way of saying whether the subject is a figure in a room or a room with a figure.

John Elderfield’s catalogue essay ‘Seeing Bonnard’, about the way the paintings are scanned and read, contributes to their demythologising. Elderfield takes for granted the pleasures afforded by the paintings: his text is rewarding if you are curious about what goes on between brain and eye when you look at a painting, or if you are interested in the language of art. It is particularly good on the semantic and conceptual tangles which arise as sentences describing what goes on in the eye when we look at a scene (central and peripheral vision, saccadic movements), and sentences about what goes on when we look at a representation of that scene on the canvas, meet each other in critical analysis. Its resonance with the remarks Bonnard made from time to time about painting suggests that what Elderfield says about rendering the evanescent impression of a scene taken in at a glance (a room as one sees it for the first time) in still, unchanging images, is true to the painter’s intentions.

The young Bonnard can get lost in the present exhibition at the Tate, particularly as the paintings in early rooms represent only one aspect of the work he was doing at that time. There were also stage productions and posters, contributions to La Revue blanche, decorative panels for the drawing-rooms of friends and patrons. He made humorous illustrations for a book about a motoring tour (La628-E8 – after the number of the car) and romantic-erotic ones for Verlaine’s Parallèlement and for Daphnis and Chloë. He was a genuine illustrator, complementing texts, not just providing more or less appropriate prints to be bound up with them. His approach to these tasks, like everything else he did, is one of intelligent deliberation. Picasso considered him indecisive: in fact he was an artist who thought before he painted. This is how he described a moment of revelation in 1895: ‘One day all the words and theories which formed the basis of our conversation – colour, harmony, the relationship between line and tone, balance – seemed to have lost their abstract application and become concrete. In a flash I understood what I was looking for and how I would set about achieving it.’

The problem of making something new of Impressionism is also given an intellectual dimension: ‘When my friends and I decided to pick up the research of the Impressionists, and to attempt to take it further, we wanted to outshine them in their naturalistic impressions of colour. Art is not Nature. We were stricter in composition. There is a lot more to be got out of colour as a means of expression.’ That was the programme and the programme was achieved. The show at the Tate proves it. It is grand – you can’t have everything, of course, and one of the pleasures of such exhibitions is making a list of the missing pictures – I would fancy one of the sailing pictures with its inky seas and glaring canvas. But what we have is a proper summing up. The sumptuous last room has three of the bath-tub pictures.

Bonnard began with drawings, made quickly (five to fifteen minutes is mentioned) with soft pencil in pocket diaries or on small pieces of paper (drawings apart, the diaries have little in them except a word on the weather). The compositions were born in these sketches. The simplest of them map the position of a chair, a window or a pose. Others record light in an astonishing kind of shorthand in which dark flicks of the pencil read as sparkling sea, and the relative density of shadows suggests weather and space. When you compare them with photographs of the same places it turns out that, for all their scribbly calligraphy, they are accurate records which allow one to work out exactly where Bonnard must have stood to see what he drew.

These drawings from life were the seeds from which the paintings grew. But they were painted from the imagination. ‘I have all my subjects to hand,’ he is recorded as saying: ‘I go and look at them. I take notes. Then I go home. Before I start painting I reflect, I dream.’ Colour which bore only a passing relation to what Kodachrome would have recorded was deployed to produce an image that gives a sense of the taste of ordinary life, but in which almost every line has been adjusted, experimented with, recharged. Colour, reflection, tone were intensified, as the taste of food can be by the right chemicals.

In his work-room (sometimes a hotel bedroom) his mature way of working was to tack up a piece cut from a roll of pre-primed canvas. More than one picture might be started on it. The pictures grew over long periods, some given their final touches after they had found their place on gallery walls. As soon as you look at them in detail you are aware of reworking, wiping off and repainting, of the adding of accents. What is surprising is that the paintings do not look tired (as paintings by Whistler, another wiper and repainter, sometimes do).

It is always possible to ask of one of Bonnard’s paintings: ‘Does it work?’ This has nothing to do with whether you like it or not, but with how the marks on the canvas relate to, and give a heightened sensation of, effects of light in the natural world. It would be absurd to ask the question, in those terms, of Picasso, almost equally absurd to ask it of Velázquez. The former so far transforms things that asking exactly how the coloured patches in the visual field are mapped onto the canvas is irrelevant, the latter, as Bonnard put it, was undefended in front of the subject: appearance, mere appearance, took over – the map he offers is complete. Bonnard himself said he could not paint from nature because he, too, had no defence before the facts of the thing in front of him. It had first to be reflected on, ‘dreamed’.

Paintings of places create a virtual space, a place where the light is not the gallery light, the walls not the gallery walls. To understand how this space is created in Bonnard’s pictures one has to distinguish between kinds of illusion. At a primitive level there are illusions which fool you: trompe l’oeil pictures of letter-racks which you think are the real thing. But most illusion in painting is not like that. Put very crudely: you represent the thing intellectually, or you represent the effects of the thing. There is a spectrum, and most paintings fall somewhere between the diagram (which can give information about the thing which may or may not relate to how it looks) and the photograph, which gives information about how it looks and may or may not give information about what it is. In the history of Western painting new ways of showing how things look have tended to oust ways of showing how they are. Limbs are obscured and foreshortened, faces are put in shadow, volumes are expressed by a single highlight rather than an outlined volume. A hand by Velázquez is a mere tumbling of brushstrokes which creates the illusion of animated flesh. You cannot count the fingernails.

The Impressionism of Monet replaced outlines and form-following brush strokes with marks which carried information about colour and tone. Edges, volumes and directions are assembled by the viewer out of data which, item by item, are pretty free of structural information. Bonnard did something quite extraordinary: he married objective and subjective ways of responding to reality. The structure – the shapes recorded in the drawing – was a more or less undistorted map; the painting which grew from it, although in many ways in the Impressionist ‘assemble this for yourself’ mode, stretches interpretative faculties to the limit. He had seen that the Impressionists had meddled very little with the conventions of what makes a scene.

One of Bonnard’s ways of disturbing the waters of traditional pictorial space is to make a lot happen at the margins of the canvas. In Balcony at Vernonnet (c.1920) the balcony creeps vertically in a narrow stripe halfway along the left-hand side of the picture. In The Open Window (1921) a woman’s face and part of a very small cat occupy about a quarter of the lower-right quadrant. Here, as in many pictures, a narrow, cut-off architectural detail – in this case the edge of the window – is hard against the edge of the canvas. In Nude in the Bath of 1924 a sliver of self-portrait (foot, dressing-gown, hands – perhaps sketching) breaks the upper-left-hand edge. Most perversely, by all ordinary conventions of composition, figures and faces (or parts of them) appear in these borderlands. In The White Tablecloth (1926) a scrap of grey profile; in Dining Room overlooking the Garden (1930-31) three-quarters only of Marthe’s face is made even harder to register by the trellis pattern of the wallpaper. Cut-off figures (Bonnard’s way of doing them is much more subject-effacing than Degas’s photograph-inspired croppings) are often shown against the light, so that the features are in shadow and you are not, at first, aware that there is anyone in the room. He exploited the kind of ‘error’ every manual on amateur photography tells you about (for example, his reflected head ‘growing out’ of Marthe’s in The French Window of 1932). Devices of this kind manipulate the eye’s journey and influence the brain’s interpretation of that journey, slowing it down, with peculiarly pleasurable results.

These compositional moves were an obvious break with the practice of Impressionism. But when you come to look at the way Bonnard used colour and tone you find changes just as great, and even more original and thoughtful. When it came to painting, the moment which the sketch recorded was re-created pragmatically, reinvented. Almost every picture he painted in the latter part of his life uses the full tonal range, black to white; many, the full chromatic range from red to violet. The problem is to work out how he used these resources to paint pictures which are not so much full of colour as full of light.

Take one of the most majestic of the bath pictures, the Nude in the Bath of 1936. The black and white accents set by the edge of the tub establish the high and low ends of a tonal register which makes the body-through-the water and light-reflected-off-water passages seem wonderfully luminous. The contrast of blue, yellow and pinky red creates an intimate space – Turner used the same colours to carve sublime hollows in giant skies. The strong purple-red shadows which the feet of the tub cast on the blue tiled floor are the strongest hue in the painting. If it was an abstract picture they would be the centre of our attention. They are not, because, even as we are aware of them, we are also aware of the pearl-shell streak which is a woman lying in water. It is her that we notice – not just the light and the space. Bonnard’s art delays this noticing and intensifies bliss. His colours – emerald-green, cobalt-blue, crimson-lake – keep their individuality. When he paints a bowl of fruit, a plum is a wonderful patch of purple black, a colour to be plucked in its own right and cherished in its relation to the yellow patch beside it, and at the same time just a plum – heavy, juicy and bloomed, present in the mind with all its fleshly connotations. The importance of the evoked object makes one wonder whether an art which deals in colour relationships only can saturate the apparatus of perception, whether, abstracted from the substrate of fruit and flesh and trees and walls, colour alone can bring us to the same pitch of solemn pleasure as Bonnard’s paintings.

The range and subtlety of Bonnard’s colour defeat reproduction. Or rather his work is defeated by it – some paintings just don’t work except in the flesh. The right texture, pigments and scale are all needed. In this he is very unlike Picasso, who built some images which are so robust (I remember a charcoal portrait of Stalin) that even third-rate newspaper reproduction does not destroy them. Which points back to an older argument – the one between advocates of Tuscan line and those of Venetian colour. Titian was Bonnard’s favourite painter. Bonnard’s drawings, like Venetian drawings, are scribbled; Picasso’s, like Florentine drawings, are delineations of edges and outlines. Bonnard’s work seduces the viewer into complicity with an illusion which is better than reality: Picasso’s is a stage on which talent amazes and delights.