A Brush With, or Without, Greatness?

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In the first half of this century, while industrialization transformed the globe and Europe endured two world wars, Frenchman Pierre Bonnard passed a domestic and productive life in artistic isolation.

Working much of the time from his light-filled villa outside Cannes, he painted more than 2,000 works, 384 of them of Marthe, a mistress who became his wife and for decades was his model for intimate nudes.

Bonnard, born in 1867 in Paris, was a key transitional figure between the Impressionism of artists such as Monet and Cezanne and the Modernism of his contemporaries, Picasso and Matisse. As a bridge between two schools, Bonnard has always been an acknowledged master of color and light.


But was he a great artist? No, said Picasso. Yes, said Matisse.

Now, as ‘90s critics also disagree, here’s a chance to make up your own mind.

In London’s first extended look at Bonnard in 32 years, the Tate Gallery has assembled more than 100 of his paintings, spanning half a century of work. Many have never been seen in public.

The Tate show, which moves to New York’s Museum of Modern Art in June, comes at a key moment, says curator and art historian Sarah Whitfield.

“Painting is coming back into people’s minds, particularly in the minds of young art students. Bonnard is a painter’s painter, and in his work the subject is the paint,” she said. “Over 50 years he was a most adventuresome, brave and almost outrageous user of paint. In the originality with which he approached the medium, Bonnard is not comparable to other painters.”

Sunlit interiors and the figure of Marthe dominate the paintings and gouaches, which have been assembled from museums, galleries and private collections in Europe, the United States and Australia.

Complementing rich landscapes, still-lifes and homey interiors are the largest number of self-portraits ever shown in one Bonnard exhibition.

Bonnard came to art after false starts in efforts to follow his father into the French civil service, and chafing law studies. Early works of what the Tate calls Bonnard’s “quiet revolutionary art” are marked by a flatness of surface, disciplined rhythms and a strong semblance to Japanese prints.


“The Croquet Game,” an 1892 work, features his father and sister in a garden of muted greens, earthy browns and a third dimension more suggested than real. Bonnard liked the picture so much he kept it himself.

The next year, 1893, the artist’s life took a landmark turn when he met a young woman selling artificial flowers on the Boulevard Haussmann in Paris. She called herself Marthe de Meligny and said she was still a teenager. Her real name was Maria Mousin and she was 26.

For the next 40 years she would become Bonnard’s companion, his confidant and his most enduring model. As an artist, Bonnard once said, he had all his subjects close at hand: It was Marthe who was ever closest.

“It’s not a matter of painting life--it’s a matter of giving life to painting,” Bonnard once observed.

In a sense, Marthe is the real star of the Tate’s 11-room exhibition. She is painted with great sensuousness in her bath, in their bedroom and in their bed in what critics have called some of the greatest nude paintings of the century.

Bonnard paints her as a slender and uninhibited figure who might have stepped from a classical sculpture, time-defying in her youth, eternal in nonchalant innocence that does not obscure womanly wisdom.


Bonnard’s forte, indoors and out, was color and light. His Mediterranean hues gave vibrancy to exteriors he often painted through open windows. If there are paintings that evoke an early favorite, Paul Gauguin, so too are there glimpses of forms and structures that anticipate later 20th century painting.


In the show, says curator Whitfield, “Bonnard is speaking directly to contemporary painters. He is showing them how the paint is put on, not so much painted as handled. We see him using his hands and his fingers, the play between his hand and the brush. With Bonnard, the painting becomes a touching medium.”

Bonnard favored modern bathrooms for his Marthe and savored the thrill of driving a car: He bought his first horseless carriage in 1911. Nonetheless, he was always remote from the trauma of 20th century France.

But he was never far from a brush and canvas. He never edited his own work, selling everything and finding a ready market in a career of extraordinary productivity lasting until his death in 1947.

In the art world, people have been arguing about him ever since.

Picasso once warned his mistress, “Don’t talk to me about Bonnard!” He railed against Bonnard’s technique of building up the surface of a painting, “touch by touch, centimeter by centimeter . . . a potpourri of indecision.”

Soon after Bonnard’s death, French critic Christian Zervos said he would only attract those “who know nothing about the great difficulties of art and cling above all to what is facile and agreeable.”


In rebuttal, Matisse wrote: “I certify that Bonnard is a great painter for today and for the future.”

Half a century later, the dueling continues. Writing in the Guardian, British critic Adrian Searle complains that the Tate show is too big and that Bonnard is not big enough.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m wading through Bonnard, drowning in Bonnard,” Searle wrote. “My eye grows nauseated by his excess, his repetitiousness, his cloying colored and claustrophobic interiors, his over-planted gardens and all that skin. Dabbed at, poked and prodded at, rubbed out and repainted.”

But Bonnard and the Tate do not lack for defenders. Critic Richard Cork of the Times of London was captivated by what he called a “superb exhibition” and was especially impressed by the nudes in which Marthe’s glowing flesh seems to pulse with well-being. “Bonnard’s art is associated above all with a sense of boundless pleasure,” Cork wrote.

For William Packer, writing in the Financial Times, the Tate show includes “some half-dozen of the greatest paintings made in the past 100 years. ‘Country Dining Room’ (1913); ‘Yellow Cafe’ (1928); ‘Vigil’ (1921); the nudes; the baths. Take your pick. These are wonderful things.”

The Tate show is expected to draw 350,000 visitors. For curator Whitfield, its message is plain: “Pierre Bonnard is a great 20th century painter. A wide variety of other painters have found him extraordinary, and he is a painter who remains relevant to us today.”


* “Bonnard,” at the Tate Gallery until May 17, is sponsored by Ernst & Young. Admission is around $12; catalog is around $42.50. Advance reservations (44) (171) 420-0055 ($2.75 booking fee). The exhibition will travel to the Museum of Modern Art in New York June 21-Oct. 13.

Montalbano, The Times’ London bureau chief, died of a heart attack on Thursday.