The ambiguities of pleasure

March 4, 2016 § Leave a comment


Pierre Bonnard | Les danseuses


When I first read that the Legion of Honor in San Francisco was going to have a Pierre Bonnard show, I looked forward to an hour or two or three devoted to simple pleasure. “A happy painter of happy pictures” was the idea I’d been carrying in my head.

What’s more, I had a memory to go with the idea. Many years ago the Museum of Modern Art in New York had a Bonnard show on the same floor as a show of Robert Motherwell’s sad paintings collectively titled Elegies to the Spanish Republic. (By sheer chance, I trust, San Francisco’s De Young Museum opened a small show of the Elegies last fall.)

At MOMA, all those years ago, the Motherwell galleries were empty and the Bonnard galleries crowded with people who wanted happy pictures. And so, looking at the title of the current retrospective, Pierre Bonnard: Painting Arcadia, I thought I was in for another “happiness wins, elegy loses” comparison, on a large scale. The exhibition was organized jointly by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Musée d’Orsay, in Paris, which has the world’s leading Bonnard collection, and the Fundación MAPFRE, in Madrid.

Nothing so simple. There are enough outwardly happy pictures to be going on with, but my overall impression was that the subtitle could have been and possibly should have been Painting Arcadia, or, the Ambiguities of Pleasure.

Of all the blue-chip artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Bonnard is, arguably by his own choice, the most difficult to categorize. He is quoted as saying he should not be associated with any artistic movement; he wanted to do “something personal.”


Pierre Bonnard | Nu dans un intérieur

At the beginning of his career, however, he could easily be associated with the movement called Les Nabis, from the Hebrew word for “prophet,” inspired by his teacher, Paul Gauguin, and including his artist friends Edouard Vuillard, Paul Sérusier and a number of other decorative artists of the Belle Epoque.

The marriage of art and money that characterized Bonnard’s early career is conspicuously on view at the Legion. The exhibition includes his iconic cover design for La Revue Blanche, one of the greatest of art-and-literature magazines, edited by his friend Thadée Natanson. There are mural-sized panel paintings for the home of his lifelong supporter Misla Edwards and her husband. The exhibition includes decorations for the home of the eminent Paris art dealers Joseph and Gaston Bernheim-Jeune.

“No outsider art here” is the message we receive. Bonnard could hardly have been more fashionable, stylistically as well as socially. Japanese prints had made an overwhelming impression on Western artists at a show in Paris in 1890, and Bonnard was described as the most Japanese of all French painters.

The Nabis broke up after a few years, but Bonnard, no longer fashionable, worked almost until the hour of his death, in 1947, and continued to find use for the distancing devices of japonisme.

Lacking the smileys we now use in email, Japanese artists invented formal devices to remind us, somewhere this side of total abstraction, that their art dealt in the artificial. The high or low angle of view, the indistinct mass that bulges into the picture from left or right, the face or body truncated by an intrusive vertical: Bonnard took up all those conventions to distance himself from ordinary ideas of solidity or permanence.

And not without reason. It can be heartwarming to think of his 384 paintings of his wife Marthe, of still lifes of food on his table, of the handsome Mediterranean landscape seen from his window, of his many depictions of his sister and her husband.


Pierre Bonnard | La table de toilette

It is a bit less attractive that when he married Marthe he omitted to tell his family. And it was not very Arcadian at all that a discarded mistress, Renée Monchaty, committed suicide near the time of the marriage, and that it didn’t happen in a discreet obscurity: the two women had known one another.

As with the Japanese artists who inspired him, Bonnard depicted pleasure in its most conventional forms: the bed, the bath, the garden. He seems to have found cats irresistible. He often painted his subjects in positions quoted from ancient classical sculpture.

But time passes. Things happen. Like the Kabuki actors and the courtesans of the pleasure quarter, he gave the world a formally inventive art that both acknowledged and half-concealed the terrible impermanence of pleasure.

Pierre Bonnard: Painting Arcadia continues at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco through May 15.


VIDEO: The head of San Francisco’s Fine Art Museums tells how the treasures of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris came to San Francisco.


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