In the search for beauty, it seems natural to be drawn to the French painter Pierre Bonnard. Once there, however, you may not find what you expected to see.
In fact, "beautiful" is not one of the first words an extravagant retrospective of Bonnard's work at the Museum of Modern Art brings to mind. While dodging summertime crowds, I realized that the 80 paintings are saturated with color, and suggest complicated psychological states of mind, but they rarely produce anything like a transcendent aesthetic experience.
The show surveys about 60 years of the artist's work starting with age 20. Along with early works of domestic and family scenes, it contains examples of all the genres Bonnard is known for - still lifes, landscapes, interiors, and a series of self-portraits painted in old age. The exhibit is dominated by the subject most quintessentially Bonnard, the female bather, to which fully a quarter of the space is devoted.
This is the first New York retrospective of the French master since 1964, and it seeks to reinterpret him as a 20th-century painter. Bonnard's life spanned the era of modern painting; he was born during the age of Manet and died during the age of Pollock. Yet he has traditionally been pigeonholed as a late Impressionist, one of the last great painters of that 19th-century school of color and light. John Elderfield, curator of the museum's retrospective, believes Bonnard is "historically in the wrong place."
"It's a general problem of perception that we think of him at the end of the 19th century," Mr. Elderfield said recently. "Bonnard first came to prominence in the 1890s, but the work that really matters is contemporaneous with Mondrian and Surrealism," in the 1920s and '30s.
Bonnard's mature work, Elderfield argues, displays pictorial tension along the edges of his paintings, and is more concerned with the flat picture plane than with illusions of perspective. These modernist attitudes place him beside an abstract painter like Piet Mondrian, Elderfield asserts. But it is questionable how many viewers will draw a natural link between Mondrian's stark geometric grids and the luxuriance of Bonnard.
But the obvious characteristic of Bonnard is still the most relevant: his preoccupation with color. He wrote in his diary that color had "laws over and above those of objects," a contention he staked his reputation on. While subject matter seems very important to Bonnard (as suggested by the separation by genre of the paintings in the show), in fact it is nearly irrelevant to his art. You glide through the eight galleries seeking the artist's understanding of the world, and leave knowing mostly his understanding of pigment.
Color replaced active engagement with the outside world for Bonnard. He spent most of his time in his small Parisian apartment with Marthe de Meligny, his wife of 49 years. He painted what he saw inside his home and out, including what he saw most, his wife washing. Marthe was a compulsive bather and provided her husband with his most frequent model.
Bonnard did not paint from life. He worked from memory, tacking his canvases to the wall of his studio and adding paint to them for months, even years. He was, Elderfield explains, attempting to capture something of the original impulse that attracted him to the painting in the first place.
"The painting process was a means of recapturing a feeling and bringing it back to the present," says Elderfield, who dubs the process "layered memory." At his most sublime, Bonnard captured these moments magnificently, as he does in several interior scenes. These paintings, which depict a set table before a window overlooking a garden, achieved a lyricism that fused the lushness of paint to the lushness of life.
This same lyrical alignment of experience and art is in Bonnard's "late bather" paintings, large masterpieces he produced before and after a long illness claimed his wife's life in 1940. In them, the bathroom is transformed into a jeweled chamber, a mosaic temple, and a magic carpet, and Marthe becomes a multi-colored creature of the water. With these pictures and the interiors, Bonnard achieves something akin to beauty.
Most of his work, however, never leaves the ground in quite the same way. An experience of true beauty would catch the viewer up in an instant and transport him or her to a higher consciousness. There is a mystery to Bonnard's work that does not yield itself up easily. But the long stretches of time invested in each work show on the canvas, and whether one calls it fussiness or "layered memory," it freezes the eye and disengages the soul.