Pierre Bonnard at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Pierre Bonnard, The White Tablecloth (1925), oil on canvas; courtesy Von Der Heydt Museum

* * *

The old man faces us, naked from the waist up. His bald head, covered in shadow but sharply defined, tilts forward at a niggling angle—as if its weight were increasingly untenable. His skin is translucent and seems barely capable of holding together. Propped within an almost impossibly compressed space, the man gazes intently at nothing in particular. He is, it is clear, distracted by his own mortality.

You’d have to go to Rembrandt or Goya to find as pitiless a depiction of the human animal as Pierre Bonnard’s Portrait of the Artist in the Bathroom Mirror (Self-Portrait) (1939-46), on display in “Pierre Bonnard: The Late Interiors” at the Met.

Is there a modern or contemporary artist who dedicated himself to flesh and bone with as much terrifying candor? German Expressionists are stylistic show-boaters in comparison; Lucian Freud, a cackhanded academician. Alice Neel? Cartoon angst. Jenny Saville? Oh, please.

Portrait of the Artist in the Bathroom Mirror (Self-Portrait) and the less scabrous if equally intense Self-Portrait (1938-40) are, literally speaking, the odd men out at the Met. Nowhere else in the exhibition does Bonnard plumb psyche or physiognomy with as much daunting specificity. But their fairly overt character amplifies Bonnard’s art—or, at least, how it is popularly perceived—in ways that otherwise might prove elusive. Forget the doting painter of cozy domesticity. The French master is something altogether more haunting, idiosyncratic and unclassifiable.

Bonnard (1867-1947) is an artist beloved by many, but not by all. His luminous pictures of fruit baskets, breakfast tables and keening, afternoon light have engendered surprising rancor. Only those “who know nothing about the grave difficulties of art,” wrote art critic Christian Zervos shortly after Bonnard’s death, could admire pictures as “facile and agreeable.” Picasso famously loathed Bonnard’s art: “That’s not painting, what he does.”

In our own time, art historian Linda Nochlin fantasized about “plung[ing] a knife” into a Bonnard canvas for its presumed feminist affronts. New Yorkerart critic Peter Schjeldahl described Bonnard’s paintings as “masturbatory” and “eye candy.” Writing in the catalog, art historian Jack Flam mentions how Bonnard has been dismissed as “lightweight.” “Bourgeois” is a common epithet.

Better abuse than neglect, but even then, Bonnard suffers. Mr. Flam points to the artist’s fortunes in the academy: “Many people who teach general courses in twentieth-century art simply leave him out.” He traces Bonnard’s “invisibility” primarily to narrow historical strictures. Sure, his innovative work with the Nabis is an important Modernist pit stop. But mostly, Bonnard was a mousy guy given to meditations on place, intimacy and loss. How sexy is that?

The 19th-century trails Bonnard. It can be somewhat startling to realize that he painted up until the time of Abstract Expressionism. But though Bonnard followed upon post-Impressionist logic, he didn’t coast on or rehash its verities. His vision veered into more personal and psychologically charged aesthetic terrain. His deceptively unkempt pictures have their equivalents less in a rock ’em, sock ’em roll call of isms than in, say, Proust’s rueful elaborations on memory. It’s not that Bonnard wasn’t forward-looking. It’s that his vision was encompassing.

What that “more” might be can be hard to finger. Part of the pleasure we derive from Bonnard’s art is its polite refusal to yield its secrets. In The White Tablecloth (1925), bread, fruit and drink are set out on an expansive white tablecloth. A woman in a striped robe stands at the table, her back hunched in stony reverie; Bonnard renders her monumental, sphinxlike. Another woman, altogether less corporeal, glimpses blandly aside. Drama is both overstated and never realized. It’s a masterpiece of narrative elision. Here, but not only here, does Bonnard reveal himself as the 20th-century’s Vermeer.

Painting from memory, Bonnard created patchwork encapsulations of discrete experiences. However abundant or intricate a particular composition is, objects and figures are intransigent and isolated; they’re fixed within their own descriptive parameters. The wiry tension in Lunch (ca. 1932), also known as Breakfast, accrues from tenuously stated relations between a bouquet of flowers, a teapot, a teacup, a shimmering woman and a threatening silhouette. It’s a painting whose lush disharmony is almost unbearable to look at.

Bonnard’s art unsettles, not least because its seductions are irresistible. He brought to the pictures a chromatic density seemingly contradictory to his feathery touch. Color smolders into fruition, gaining in luxuriance and acidity. Bonnard’s brush—skittering, self-effacing and relentless—glances upon objects, but puts them in the service of mood: We recognize things, but the image itself is suffused in a haze of paint. His sometimes infuriating modesty can’t disguise his aesthetic rigor. As a painter, he was, as a friend notes, “one tough son-of-a-bitch.”

“The Late Interiors” continues the conversation about history’s limitations put into motion by the Met’s recent Morandi exhibition. What to do about great artists whose peculiarities prevent them from efficient categorization and Major status? You can celebrate their underdog marginality or you can question the received wisdom. Bonnard may well piss off people because he’s no one’s idea of a revolutionary, but his mastery is irrefutable all the same. He’s just that good.

“The history of twentieth-century art,” Mr. Flam concludes, “must be reckoned in a different way.” The Late Interiors is a welcome step in that reevaluation.

© 2009 Mario Naves

Originally published in the February 10, 2009 edition of The New York Observer.

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