Pierre Bonnard: Not Just a Pretty Face

At first glance, these richly colored paintings with lavishly decorative surfaces seem to be exultations of the glorious French sunshine and its effect on the artist’s gardens and rooms.  Pierre Bonnard, The Late Interiors, now at the Met, focuses mainly on the interior views Bonnard painted at his home at Le Cannet, near Cannes, from the mid 1920s through his death in 1947.  A walk through this exhibition will remind one what the color orange is, what yellow really looks like, how vibrant white can be, and how violet can erupt from the surface of a painting.  The canvases vibrate with the power of these colors and the compositions they comprise.

Then without realizing it one begins to notice that she has missed something at first look.  Look carefully, for in one painting there is a small, black dachshund peering into the painting from the perimeter on the left.  In another, a woman bends to the floor to greet her cat, her barely-visible figure blending seamlessly into the room behind her.  Somehow the extreme light illuminates the scene in an exaggerated way, and the space is sometimes skewed and disproportionate.  And then you will have discovered the true Bonnard at work.  Always mysterious and full of surprisesthe works exist on both the pleasurable, aesthetic level and on the more complex and unsettling one.  His pictures are not just pretty surfaces or decorative accents for the wall, and must be considered alongside more complex psychological pictures of the French Modernist era.  His work provides a revolving door of figures entering and exiting, often caught in awkward poses or exaggerated angles or perspectives, the paintings provide an interesting look at what life must have been like for the painter and his wife/muse wife Marthe.  While on the one hand the couple and their staff or visitors went about their daily rituals of setting the table, dining, arranging flowers or bathing, the scenes also suggest a more complicated existence. 

This exhibition runs at the Metropoitan Museum of Art in the Robert Lehman wing from now through April 19th.