Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Metropolitan Museum of Art,1000 5th ave at 82nd streetBonnard: late interiors. Through April 19

You've got to love Bonnard! How can anyone not love Bonnard? Well Picasso didn't, but that's just something else to love about Bonnard. They both grew out of the same modernist roots, but while Picasso was creating his own style that so many subsequent artists embraced Bonnard branched out in a totally different direction that even Picasso couldn't appreciate. He was, and to some extent still is one of the most misunderstood artist of the modern era. He's considered by most to be the last of the bourgeois lyricists, and it is easy to initially see his paintings as playful decorative exercises, even "piddling" ones as Picasso said. But, if you keep looking you see how spatially conflicting and structurally complicated his images are. Complicated but never detailed, and slow but never labored. He also liberated color from subject matter in a way so radical that he has to be seen as one of the early modernists that prefigured abstraction.

One of the ways that he separated form from subject matter is that he almost never painted from life. Instead he worked from small spontaneous pencil sketches that had very little detail. Some look almost like Cy Twombly doodles. These gave him very little information to work from, thus forcing the painting to take on a life of its own. Bonnard sketched religiously, and kept a daybook with him at all times making visual notes of the things he saw. Most of those things are pretty mundane, but you'd never know from the drawings. There are a series of these day books in the exhibition that are absolute jewels.

The show focuses on his late interiors, but there are a lot of still lifes to be seen. I suppose a still life technically is an interior unless it's set up outdoors, but...whatever. Anyway, I think it's interesting because these are the same galleries that held the Morandi show a few months ago. I couldn't help but think how different Bonnard's still lives are from Morandi's in terms of pallet, composition, and general paint handling. In some ways though they're strangely similar in their intimacy, and the way they ask the viewer to slow down and navigate through the groupings of commonplace objects.

It is, however the larger more complex interiors that are the most effective and powerful. The way he combines and renders complicated objects and spaces, and transforms them into rich strokes of paint, bringing them back up to the surfaces of these larger canvases is endlessly fascinating.  A still life on a table will be set next to a figure, next to a door leading to another room. Then there will be a window leading out to a terrace, which will in turn lead to a landscape. It's like he wanted to fit as many things into the painting as he possibly could for the sheer joy of painting them, and seeing how they play off one another. I noticed something about Bonnard a few years ago. The scale of his subject matter doesn't usually grow when he paints larger paintings. He just paints more things, like he's opening the lens of a camera to include more. So, it's not the scale but the structural complexity of the image that grows with the size of the painting.

One of the last paintings in the show is "Interior Dining Room" which was finished soon before the artists death. Bonnard never had any trepidation about using color combinations that were challenging to aesthetic convention, sometimes even garish or ugly. This late work is particularly ambitious in that sense. It's a near riot of color, more so than almost anything of his I've seen. That, combined with the severe distortion of the figures and objects in the painting show that the artist never grew complacent in his old age. This is a great show of an amazing painter. Anyway, that's what I think.

1 comment:

  1. Matt, Good review. I more interested in Bonnard now than I ever thought. But you should include pictures of the work. It will help. Cheers and keep it coming.