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The Brooklyn Rail

Pierre Bonnard typically evades categorization as a member of one tendency or another in nineteenth or twentieth century painting, for example Impressionism. Bonnard’s paintings are about far more than a genre categorization opticality, though they are visually complex in the extreme. And, as surface, Bonnard’s paintings are also extreme with a ceaseless movement of thinned oil color or trailing dabs of thicker oil color. Bonnard unstretched his paintings, tacking the canvas to the wall, which not only makes the canvas haptic but it also allowed him to crop paintings occasionally. In these paintings, the constant fragmenting and reconfiguring of the seen world is conjoined with the flux of struggling subjectivity as time passes it by. These are not pretty pictures. The figure to the right, at the painting’s edge, merges with the wall as a trace, like a fading photograph.

The exhibition includes several photographs of Bonnard’s home and studio. One photo by Bonnard shows his model in a tub with strong natural backlighting that places her in shadow. Her movement blurs her silhouette and the foreground of the photo is unfocused—all characteristics reminiscent of his paintings that contain figures. I think of Proust in the seemingly involuntary emphasis Bonnard accords odd moments, casually noticed things—a vase of flowers, a chair or a part of a wall. Here, we can also note the indifference of ordinary objects to our existence—their longevity and our transience—and the deep melancholy of the perfect sun-filled afternoon when faced with nothingness, eternity.

Intérieur avec nappe de table rouge [Interior with Red Tablecloth] (c. 1930–40) is watercolor and gouache over pencil on paper. The limitations, that is the inherent quality of watercolor and gouache, reveal the spontaneity and resourcefulness of Bonnard’s method. The shapes established with pencil in a rapid and restive line fit together like pieces, and the tilting of the scene to become somewhat flat because of the subtle use of diagonals recalls Japanese woodblock prints. The partial shapes at the painting’s edge could be read as figures: the partial view of an object or person together with the partial views through doorways and windows describe passage through the world, always incomplete and often fleeting. Confronting the ubiquitous in between of uneventful moments experienced each day can be very uncomfortable.

La côte d'azur [The Riviera] (1923) is a landscape view across treetops toward the coast and hills in the distance. The organic pattern of trees in leaf and blossom tumble together in blue and pink light. This is not Pointillism; it’s a very different measure, and at a leap, more like Seurat’s conte drawings than his color mixing paintings. I say this because of the small-scale composite parts of textured and tessellated fragments found in each. Coupe de fruits [Still Life with a Bowl of Fruit ] (1933) is another painting using a classical form, the still life. And again, Bonnard adds something to this genre that is his alone. This time the oranges and violets that he often employs render a shadow as object, a tangible but also ephemeral thing, like Klee said in his notebook, “Many Paradoxes: Nietzsche is in the air.” The three ovals, table edge, bowl and the bowl’s shadow are also compositionally striking, odd and unexpected. Bonnard worked with contradiction as well as the rapture of color, atmospheric effects and quotidian objects, and this process of seeing and being part of that world makes his paintings works of philosophy as well as sensuality.