The Magazine

Final Impressionist

Along the Riviera, Pierre Bonnard gets his due.

Jul 20, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 41 • By PIA CATTON
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There are reasons enough to take a swing through the French Riviera, but for the art lover, here's one more. The palm-tree-lined town of Le Cannet, just north of Cannes, has established the first and only museum devoted to the painter Pierre Bonnard. Located in a classic villa, the museum will be fully open and complete next year, but the first exhibition is now on view until late September.

The French government has given the Bonnard Museum the status of Musée de France, which is given to national treasures such as the Louvre and the Musée d'Orsay. It's a recognition that may seem perfunctory, but, in fact, it helps to elevate the legacy of a painter who has long been assigned to a lower talent bracket than he deserved.

Assigned by whom? Well, for one, Pablo Picasso, who poo-pooed Bonnard: "That's not painting, what he does." More broadly, while Picasso and his ilk were reacting to the world by deconstructing it, critics saw Bonnard as a leftover relic of Impressionism, an old man in a new world. But as the new director of the Metropolitan Museum, Thomas Campbell, wrote in the catalogue accompanying its recent "Pierre Bonnard: The Late Interiors," there's another way to see Bonnard: "[It] makes a renewed case for his significance as a modernist in the narrative of early twentieth-century art. Although Bonnard's legacy may be removed from the succession of trends that today we consider the foundation of modernism, his contribution to French art in the early decades of the twentieth century is far more profound than history has generally acknowledged."

The Met exhibit focused on Bonnard's output from 1923 to 1947, the years during which he worked mainly in the Cote d'Azur town of Le Cannet. In 1926, Bonnard bought a villa there and called it Le Bosquet ("the Grove"). In February 1927 he moved into Le Bosquet with Marthe de Meligny, his model, companion, and, as of 1925, his wife. (Bonnard was associated with another model, Renée Monchaty, to whom he had earlier proposed marriage. She committed suicide after Marthe objected to that union!)

The paintings from this late period--less celebrated than his nudes and bathers--show a synthesis of styles. Bonnard (born in 1867) started out as part of the Nabi movement, which emphasized symbolism and muted tones. But by the time of these intensely colorful still lifes and interiors he had taken a route to territory all his own. Writes curator
Dita Amory:

If Bonnard's trajectory was far removed from the avant-garde circles of Fauvism, Cubism, and Surrealism, his color was nonetheless more radical at times than that of the Fauves, his imagery more complex and mysterious than that of either Cubism or Surrealism. More important, his process of looking always remained highly original.

His late paintings depict all the sensory delights--bowls of fruit, colorful flowers, rich tablecloths--of a meal taken in cool shade on a hot day. Central to the complexity of his work is that he did not paint en plein air or by looking directly at his subjects: He did not simply paint lunch before consuming it. Instead, he would create a sketch of a scene, making notes on color, space, and light. Then, in his studio, he painted from notes and memory, contemplating how the objects interacted with each other and within the light--as he envisioned it. He gave himself the liberty to change the colors of objects (that's what Picasso was objecting to), add human figures (who seem somewhat ghostly), and remove what the composition did not need.

His choices and decisions are what make the paintings. As Bonnard said of his efforts: "I'm trying to do what I have never done, give the impression one has on entering a room: One sees everything and at the same time nothing." This particular statement--amid the color-saturated paintings of tables set for bright mornings and languid afternoons--opened a world of memory for me: I once attended a lunch in Italy at the Castello di Vicarello, a village-turned-resort in the Tuscan Maremma. The sunlight was radiant. The hills were green. The hostess wore Pucci.

In a leafy garden, she had organized a lunch that included a leg of smoked boar, homemade ricotta, and a variety of beans, salads, and pastas. I don't remember talking to the other people at the lunch, and though I know every bite was delicious, I don't really remember eating. But I do remember the first sight of that buffet table: the tablecloth, the leg of boar (positioned at that awkward angle for carving), and the waiter and trees behind the table.

Bonnard's "Basket of Fruit in the Sun" (1927) could be his own memory of a similar spread. On a narrow table with a printed tablecloth are various items including a basket and bowl filled with fruit. The table casts a short, dark shadow while the rest of the painting is a mottled yellow, orange, and green field that suggests both grass and bright sunlight. Even when he worked with white, as in the tablecloth in "Lunch or Breakfast" (1932), everything else in the painting glows with color: a small blue cup, a vase of flowers, the overlapping colors of the walls and structure of the interior. "Dining Room on the Garden" (1934-35) captivates with a view of both the interior (with a table, chair, and fruit in bowls) and a view of the intensely blue and green garden.

It seems absurd that a case for Bonnard needs to be made. But with the Met's show and the creation of the new museum in Le Cannet, his legacy may have its own renaissance.

Pia Catton is life editor of Politico.