Bathroom Beauty

Pierre Bonnard’s voyeuristic obsession.

Museum of Modern Art, New York City
June 21-Oct. 13, 1998

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The Museum of Modern Art has buried its Pierre Bonnard retrospective in windowless basement galleries. The puzzling decision to relegate the painter of sun-drenched tablecloths and rainbow gardens to the underground makes some sense given the direction and drift of the show, the third MoMA retrospective of Bonnard’s work since his death just shy of age 80 in 1947. John Elderfield, the curator in charge, has banished some of Bonnard’s most popular and beguiling works–Provençal landscapes with red-roofed houses, windows looking out from laden breakfast tables, flowering trees–to the periphery of the show. He asks us to focus our attention instead on three major clusters of Bonnard’s work: bathroom scenes of Bonnard’s wife, Marthe, undressing, primping, or toweling herself off; scenes of Marthe submerged full-length in a bathtub; and self-portraits of Bonnard peering at himself in the bathroom mirror. You could call the show, after Ingmar Bergman, “Scenes From a Marriage,” since Bonnard includes his very clean wife in some 384 paintings. Then again, you could call it, with equal justice, “Scenes From a Bathroom.”

Elderfield thinks these bathroom pictures raise most insistently the problems of perception–peripheral vision, scanning rhythms, and so on–that for him are at the heart of Bonnard’s art. Elderfield’s ponderous and mechanistic catalog essay is filled with such insights as the following: “While the global rhythms have a pulsatile aspect owing to the regular bounce provided by the edge, which rebounds the gaze, the chasing rhythms have a more spasmodic aspect owing to the more extended and irregular scanpaths they follow.” (If you’re hungry for more, the show’s Web site adds explanatory diagrams.) Bonnard is indeed a visually complex artist, whose constant experimenting with peculiar compositional schemes–especially his habit of concealing figures on the margins of his paintings–requires patient and prolonged viewing. Picasso’s paintings grab you by the throat; Bonnard’s paintings dawn on you. But all these “adventures of the optic nerve,” as Bonnard calls them, were means, not–as Elderfield believes–ends. We’re not taking a course in optics in these paintings; we’re looking at a couple, and a mighty strange one.

Like Edgar Degas and Édouard Manet in the previous generation of French painters, Bonnard (1867-1947) was born into the high bourgeoisie (his father served in the upper echelons of the War Ministry), and like those painters he had a taste for the demimonde. He attended the posh Lycée Louis-le-Grand, Degas’ alma mater, and like Degas seemed destined for a law career. Two nearly simultaneous events sealed his fate. He flunked the civil service exam and won a contest in 1889 to design a poster for a champagne firm. In his winning design, a waitress tips a champagne glass forward, and the cascading foam obscures pretty much everything but her cleavage.

Bonnard’s early influences were the work of Paul Gauguin and Japanese prints, both of which confirmed his interest in bold colors and strongly delineated design. He was a member of the Nabis (Hebrew for “Prophets”), a loose-knit brotherhood of painters who worshiped Gauguin and, as Bonnard later recalled, “envisaged a popular art that was of everyday application.” The MoMA exhibition, composed entirely of oil paintings, ignores Bonnard’s dazzling drawings, lithographs, decorated screens, book illustrations, set designs (for Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, for Nijinsky ballets), puppets, and masks, thus obscuring both the breadth and the nature of his career. The decorative panel called (1916-20) gives a taste of this improvisatory and populist side of Bonnard’s work, with its hidden animals–a peacock and a monkey, for example, in the tree above the strangely modern-looking Adam’s head.

D uring the 1890s, when Bonnard was first making a name for himself as an artist, his effervescent brilliance in one medium spilled (like champagne) into others. His salmon-pink illustrations for Paul Verlaine’s soft-porn poems (“I want you almost nude, not nude … through a cloud/ of lace the glimpse of/ your flesh, which my delirious mouth/ races across”) became the basis for a suite of paintings of models in black stockings. Perhaps to give such pictures a classical sanction, he often borrowed the poses from well-known antique sculptures. (1900) is based on the marble Hermaphrodite in the Louvre. Such erudite allusion could also add to the kinky mixing of high and low, as when Bonnard put high heels on a model posed as the Medici Venus (, 1931). The American painter Eric Fischl (as reported in Timothy Hyman’s excellent new study of Bonnard) has identified the partially concealed hands of Bonnard jutting into this painting, offering up a red-stained (sanitary?) cloth to the yellow nude.

B onnard had met the high-heeled, diminutive model for many of these paintings of nudes around 1893. She introduced herself as Marthe de Mélingy–the sort of mock-noble name that demimondaines such as Proust’s Odette de Crécy liked to assume–and claimed to be a teen-ager. Her real name was Maria Boursin, and she was 24, though Bonnard didn’t find out these details until, like Proust’s Swann, he married her. The marriage, kept secret from Bonnard’s family, was the result of a traumatic development in Bonnard’s life. He had had affairs with other models before, but seven years earlier he had fallen in love with a statuesque blonde–a woman physically the opposite of Marthe–called Renée Monchat (“Chaty” to her intimates). In several paintings, including (1925), two women–in this case the brunette leaning over the table to the right and the peripheral blonde to the extreme left–seem to vie for the viewer’s attention. (The optical mechanisms arising from such tensions between central figures and partially hidden peripheral figures are a major subject of Elderfield’s essay.)

Bonnard found himself unable to leave Marthe, his lifelong companion, and Renée killed herself in despair. By some reports she shot herself; others, perhaps influenced by the obsession of Bonnard’s late paintings, say she drowned herself in her bathtub. In any case, it was in 1925, the year of his marriage, that Bonnard first painted his wife full-length in the bathtub, where she retreated for hours at a time every day. The usual line is that Marthe, paranoid and neurotic, had a mania for cleanliness. Sarah Whitfield (who installed the show for its previous run at London’s Tate Gallery), while not denying the compulsive nature of Marthe’s bathing, has suggested that hydropathy was a popular treatment for such ailments as tubercular laryngitis, which Marthe suffered from and eventually, in 1942, died of. All three late paintings of Marthe in the bath–considered by many to be Bonnard’s crowning achievements–are on view at MoMA. They have a jeweled, hallucinatory quality. The modern bathroom with its linoleum floor, ceramic tile, and enameled tub–as banal a setting as one could imagine–is transformed in these late masterpieces into a world as rich and exotic as Tutankhamen’s tomb (, 1936). Marthe looks embalmed in formaldehyde, her features dissolving before our eyes.

I n some of his bathroom scenes of Marthe, Bonnard marks his own voyeuristic presence at the margins–a knee jutting into the canvas here, a hazy profile there. In MoMA’s beautiful of 1932, the little dog keeping vigil seems like a stand-in for Bonnard. An alarm clock on the washstand is set forever at 5 o’clock as though to mark this epiphany, when the white light struck the woman’s breast just so. Then, in the enigmatic self-portraits grouped in the final room of the MoMA show, Bonnard is suddenly fully there, though back-lit and shadowed in the bathroom mirror. Two of the very late self-portraits have the wartime blackout curtains pulled aside, as though Bonnard is exposed in more ways than one. (1931), though, is surely the strangest of the self-portraits. Almost Chaplinesque, Bonnard as depicted here looks like the very last fighter you’d bet on. His face looks bruised and battered, and his small, sunken eyes show the marks where glasses were just removed. But he holds up his hands gamely, as though to say that with these hands, bloodied and unprotected, he painted some of the most extraordinary paintings of his quickly ending century.