Bonnard at the Modern

Bonnard at the Modern

As New York’s museums have come to rely on mounting block¬buster exhibitions, the museum going public has grown inured to them. The Impressionists, the great modernists like Picasso and Matisse, and a few postwar New York painters will always draw a crowd, but these shows provide occasions to revisit the familiar and see widely scat¬tered works brought together. Some¬times they are little more than tourist packages aimed at the box office. At their best, however, they recon¬figure an artist’s work into a superbly illustrated visual essay. The big Mondrian exhibition two years ago was a revelation, shedding new light on how his art developed. But did we really need a big show focused on Picasso’s portraits? If Picasso is a vast continent, it has by now been thoroughly mapped and explored.

Nothing was predictable for the crowds that jammed the Bonnard retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) this summer. Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947) was hardly a favorite of American collectors. He never fit easily into any narrative of modern art, yet he influ¬enced painters as different as Fairfield Porter and Mark Rothko. His name did not even appear in some standard texts, such as H.W. Janson’s 1962 History of Art. The two previous surveys of his work at MoMA (in 1948 and 1964) are but a dim memory; they were put together at a time when he was widely seen as a belated Impres¬sionist, an artist clinging to techniques that were dated by the turn of the century, or as a minor modernist, not as bold as Matisse in his use of color or as daring as the Cubists in his break with nature and figuration. (Picasso himself told Françoise Gilot that Bonnard was “not really a modern painter. . . . just another neo-impressionist, a decadent; the end of an old idea, not the beginning of a new one.”) As long as abstraction remained the cardinal tenet of modernism, Bonnard’s art could not be fully appreciated or even understood.

Part of the scandal of Bonnard’s paintings is the pleasure they give. There was a palpable sense of enjoyment at the Bonnard show. Visitors were enthralled by it; one painter I met was there for the fourth time. In his review of the 1948 MoMA retrospective, Clement Greenberg defended his more severe view of art against the seduction he acutely felt. “Bonnard is almost a major painter, but not quite,” he wrote. “Sensuousness, paint quality, color, and an original approach to composition are all present; also taste and erudi¬tion. But some final intensity is missing.” The pictures, he complained, “seduce us with their luxury, the paradoxical ease and measure of their shallow and airless depths.”

For most viewers, Bonnard’s color is the key to his sensuous appeal. After he saw a huge exhibition of Japanese woodblock prints and illustrated books in 1890, Bonnard realized “that color could express everything . . . with no need for relief or texture.” He discovered that “colo...