EXHIBITIONS / Discreet charm of a bourgeois: In the last years of his life, Bonnard shut himself off at Le Bosquet, painting what he knew best. But can a great artist live in a world of his own?

Tim Hilton
Saturday 02 July 1994 23:02

PIERRE BONNARD is the best- loved painter of interiors in early- modern art, and no other artist has his ability to dissolve his chosen genre. Bonnard makes his interiors somewhat akin to sunset landscapes. He takes the plain facts of French middle- class sitting-rooms and transforms them into visions of cinnabar, rose madder, turquoise, gold and violet. He makes a lovely sight of the ordinary and we experience his best pictures as though unpacking treasure.

The exhibition now at the Hayward Gallery makes no attempt to explain how Bonnard came by his style. Instead it provides us with a representative survey of the work he did at the Villa du Bosquet in the South of France, obviously a charming spot with views of the Esterel mountains and the Bay of Cannes. He bought the property in 1926, when he was 58 years old, but used it only occasionally until 1938. Then, with the German invasion, Bonnard and his wife moved there permanently and Le Bosquet was his home and inspiration until his death in 1947.

The final flowers of Bonnard's painting therefore grew in Vichy France, and one of the questions raised by the exhibition concerns Bonnard's reaction to the Occupation. Belinda Thomson, who has organised the show with the painter Sargy Mann, is a little too troubled by the matter of Bonnard's behaviour and attitudes during the war years. This, I think, is because she has been affected by Michele C Cone's book Artists Under Vichy, which takes the severe line that both Bonnard and Matisse (who, of course, was also on the Cote d'Azur) were both too much concerned with their own welfare and not the outcome of the war. Cone even goes so far as to suggest, without a shred of real evidence, that Matisse supported the Vichy regime, and she scolds the 'collective psyche of the French bourgeoisie concerning the apolitical nature of art and the political navete of artists'.

Well, there is no need to acquiesce to such bludgeoning accusations. These two painters wrote to each other about their difficulties in painting and the inconveniences of all the shortages in the Occupation, but that does not make the elderly artists into villains. As for the shortcomings of the French bourgeoisie - let us not be bullied. Middle-class art of equable temperament and high aesthetic quality was in truth a triumph of the French bourgeois mind and a contribution to culture unparalleled in other countries. An English or a German Bonnard is unimaginable, the middle classes of each country having too crude or guilty a concept of hedonism.

Pleasure in life, an awestruck enjoyment of the domestic world, is the key to Bonnard's imagination. Childless himself, he looked at the world as though with a child's perspective. Here perhaps is a reason why he is so much a painter of interiors. It's as though his eye and brush could not see beyond the limits set by a loving but self-absorbed mother. We know too little about Marthe, Bonnard's mistress from the 1890s and from 1925 his wife. People always say that he was housebound because of her fragility and oddness. Bonnard may however have discovered a sort of mother in Marthe, an ever-present woman who would protect him from the trips and perils of the world beyond the dining-room and la terrasse.

Bonnard's nudes of Marthe, characteristically situated in the bathroom, always make me think of a little boy who sees his naked parent and cannot understand her otherness (a recurrent motif, incidentally, in French fiction). I wish there were more nudes in the exhibition and fewer landscapes. Bonnard failed most often when he went beyond the end of Le Bosquet's garden. I agree that the panorama afforded by Landscape at Le Cannet (1928), a long picture that looks down from the house over a Provencal vista, is one of great beauty. Yet it makes me think that it is not so much a living landscape as a memory of an interior decoration, in particular his best friend Vuillard's panels of the 1890s, which treated landscape subjects not as something seen through a window but as a physical part of the drawing-room.

Vuillard and Bonnard had been comrades of a sort all their lives - definite comrades when, in the 1890s, they were part of the group of young artists who called themselves nabis. Like the English Pre-Raphaelites, this was a proto-avant-garde association of talented students who were impatient with their conservative professors, adopted cabalistic signs and procedures, flirted with esoteric philosophy and worshipped unconventional idols. The nabis's main inspiration was the unbourgeois Gauguin. But they also went in for the concept of unified design within the middle-class home. This was Bonnard's background as an artist, and in a sense he never left such origins.

Many of Bonnard's later paintings - that is to say, all of them after his apprenticeship - can't be accurately dated because he had such a stable style. A painting of the 1930s might belong to the 1920s, a painting of the 1940s might belong to the 1930s. He didn't date them. Bonnard's joke was that this would 'give art historians something to do'. I'm surprised that he knew that the world contained such people. He seems to have had little inkling that there are men and women who enquire why things happen at a particular time and seek the reasons for those happenings. Just as there are no events within Bonnard's art, so also there are few events within his own development.

So we look in vain for the landmark and standard of a great or epochal

picture. Bonnard provides no such thing, and although this does not make him a lesser painter it does suggest that his greatness was of a subsidiary rank. Here again he is very French. From early Impressionism onwards France abounded in excellent painters with modest aspirations. It was the great age of the petit maitre. Historically speaking, Bonnard brings the petit maitre tradition to an other-worldly conclusion - right in the middle of the 20th century.

Like many petit maitres, Bonnard was much better when painting than when working with pen or pencil: gifted draughtsmen of such a type were likely to enter the sharper world of magazine illustration. Sad though I am to disagree with Sargy Mann, who writes so well about his favourite artist, I cannot find enormous merit in Bonnard's drawing. His pencil marks seem to cry out for the fatter and

softer touch of a brush. He could not understand, let alone emulate, the enterprise of Matisse's drawing and its wish to get to the depths of art. I prefer Bonnard's print-making, nicely represented in the Hayward show.

Comparisons with Matisse are not out of place, and this is a compliment to any artist. I even think that Bonnard's palette, which is a sort of glorification of Renoir's, may have affected Matisse's Nice paintings of the late 1920s. However, these near contemporaries (Bonnard was born in 1867, Matisse in 1869) differ not only in final quality but also in response to the modern age. Bonnard was a rebel only as a student; Matisse was le roi des fauves. Bonnard turned aside from the frightening challenge of Cubism; Matisse absorbed Cubism into his own philosophy. Loveable though he is, we have to say that Bonnard delighted in Le Bosquet at the period when figurative painting, really for the last time, examined the destiny of mankind as a whole. And that, as we are aware, is not a bourgeois concern.

Hayward, 071-928 3144, to 29 Aug.

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