Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) exhibition reveals one of the century's great reductionist painters -- worthy of comparison to Matisse and Mondrian in taking down Nature to abstracted visual surrogates. While no one would deny Bonnard engages our eye as a fine painter, and our emotions with his domestic hedonism, he also challenges our patience, our sense of proportion, and our historical understanding of modernism.
The red wall that greeted me on leaving the escalator to the museum's lower galleries is inscribed with Bonnard's 1931 definition of "Painting -- or the transcription of the adventures of the optic nerve." Printed in blue on the red, it required some optical adventuring to discern, and is thus an intelligent introduction to the show, adjusting the eye for what was to come just around the corner.
I know that I am supposed to swoon over all the tonal juxtapositions of paint that came into view. But I do not. I can appreciate the decent enough compositions within which he organizes his little domestic dramas, and the skill with which the optics of space and color demonstrate peripheral phenomena and define subtle conditions of light. But I want something more from a work of art.
Granted, those post-coital scenes with the woman lolling, and the man occasionally loitering, have their charm. (One was even titled Earthly Delights.) But what I found most intriguing and beautiful were not these works, or the innumerable images of Bonnard's wife about her dawn, noon and/or dusk ablutions, but the one small room (and what could be spied of them out the windows of his interiors) of Bonnard's landscapes. He could sense the greater vitality there and painted it with great dexterity; one wanted more of these, and less of his claustrophobic domesticity.
Can anyone really claim those bathtubs, filled with what came to be fantasies of his wife, are great paintings? As with so many modernist icons, they take on an historical aura that over-awes aesthetic reactions and common sense. To me they are good enough depictions of humidity -- but not much else. Or maybe the else is in those bathroom tiles that (or did they?) inspire Mark Rothko to blow them up, as has recently been claimed, into his clouds of floating color?
To give Bonnard his due, however, he is painting extremely discrete moments of perception. (I shall leave it to the feminist critics to tell us just how indiscreet they are). One really has to parse them out optically, match them against one's experience of light on stuff and flesh, recall the material culture of bathing in those days, and come to reexperience, visually and historically, what it is he is seeing.
Come to think about it, this is very much like parsing Joyce or Stein to get at the potential meaning(s) embedded in the seeming and/or actual gibberish. The question, of course, is whether the effort is worth the result. In Joyce, of course, and unlike Stein, you can find rich, micro-structured textures of psychological allegory shaved to a faretheewell of linguistic conceit. But I have never been sure the effort needed to squeeze out the meanings in these writers, or in painters such as Bonnard, is worth the effort, since the medium of meaning, whether visual or verbal, is fundamentally inadequate.
The profound irony inherent in modernist reductionism is its noble attempt to get to the heart of the matter, whatever it might be, despite the inadequacy of the means employed. In literature, what is lost is what one expects of words: communication; in art: what is lost is legibility. These are not unendurable losses, if the method is transparent -- as it is, for instance, in Pound or Picasso. In all cases, dealing with the problem is sometimes of enormous interest in itself. You explode traditional habits, and perceive on new levels of awareness, But the works always fail in the end, because their ambition is beyond their capacities to achieve.
Getting to the heart of matter has been the triumph, not of the arts, but of modern science, where literally, and often with great elegance, the mysteries of matter have been revealed, analyzed, and applied to technology with enormous deftness, and overarching cultural repercussions.
Ever since the exploitation of color contrasts by the Impressionists, based on principles derived from the craft of tapestry weaving, to our current tweaking a graphic's pixels on our home computer screens, the arts have enviously, and with ultimate futility, attempted to imitate what the sciences had already achieved. (Here, along with its primitive origins in weaving, we might ponder that first "pixel" design to be found in Diderot & D'Alembert's Encyclopédie, Supplément, "Lingere," Tome III, Planche IV, that rationalizes the embroidering of monograms on linens.) This parallelism with science has been widely noted in Cubism's simultaneity of vision, but not, I think, in other aspects of visual modernism's relentless reductionism. From Monet and Seurat through the ben-day dot screens to our digital cybersphere, visual reductionism has been aped but seldom transcended by artists. Like it or not, the future of visual experience is in this new, electronic manner of counting out what we call reality. For the nonce (since this PAGE shall be returning to this subject in the future), I shall just say it is best achieved in art by free association than by formal or coloristic reduction.
Bonnard lovers will probably disagree, even after reading his 1945 epigraph at the end of MoMA's exhibition about how "There is a formula that perfectly fits painting: lots of little lies for the sake of one big truth." There is something about modern science that would perhaps take this statement to heart, since much of science is axiomatic fibbing, the better to strike the big truths that sometimes result -- all else being equal.
But despite these quibbles, this is a beautiful exhibition
in itself, one that makes us see and prompts thought. Its curators,
John Elderfield and Sarah Whitfield, are to be congratulated
for bringing such an opportunity about.