Sunday, February 22, 2009

Bonnard's Late Interiors at Met Museum

The exhibition tries to put the case for Bonnard as a modernist master, and not a mere Post-Impressionist working past the due date of the movement. Restricting the show to his late interiors, however, does not help to make the case. The color experiments look interesting, but not innovative; his pictorial language changed little in these paintings from 1927 to the end of his life in 1947. 

He painted the dining room, the breakfast room, the upstairs bedroom in his house at La Cannet, and the objects in them like a raffia basket of fruits, a vase of flowers, bottles of wine. The one still life that really held my attention was that of a bowl of cherries. And "The Breakfast Room" is noble. But I remember being bowled over by his paintings of the terrace and garden seen elsewhere. At this show I was underwhelmed. 

I don't understand why one critic called Bonnard "the most abstract of painters." These late interiors seem to me insufficiently abstract. They are concerned with narrative and character as much as, if not more than, form. They are about his wife and muse, Marthe, and his lover who killed herself when Bonnard finally married Marthe after living together for years.

The paintings do not imagine the old settings in radically new ways. Bonnard painted from his sketches, instead of direct observation, as if he wished to detach his retina from realism. His sketches, also on show here, were drawn with a personal code of dots and dashes, loops, and shading, to represent areas of different density of color. This method smacks of paint-by-numbers. 

The paintings whose forms are striking resemble, tellingly, Matisse. "The Work Table" with its different planes is one such instance. A drawing of Marthe naked in heels in front of a mirror was composed dramatically but also realistically, with proper perspective. The painting changed that composition by placing mirror and woman side by side in different "panels." That treatment reminds me of Matisse's "Bathers by the River" (1909), with its panels of block colors. 

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