Pierre Bonnard The Demanding Cat oil on canvas 1912
Several Saturdays ago my husband and I drove up early to San Francisco to the Legion of Honor Museum and its view of the gloomy, rain and wind-swept bay. We’d been planning our trip since we heard about the Pierre Bonnard show 'Painting Arcadia' in a letter from my friend Tom. Bonnard has always been one of my favorite painters, but my experiences seeing his artwork have always been scattered: a beautiful big painting in a group exhibition here, a small and fascinating painting from a permanent collection there. I’ve never seen a whole show of his work before, and my hopes were not disappointed.
While the title ‘Painting Arcadia,’ seemed slightly misleading to me, given that the show had as many interiors, still lifes and nudes as landscapes, I was very happy that all those paintings were there. The show covers Bonnard’s whole life, from his earliest ‘Japoniste’ paintings on cardboard painted during his early and mid-twenties all the way to the very last painting he made before he died in 1947, the blossoming almond tree he could see from his window. It was remarkable to see that painting, as small and intimate as his first paintings, but shimmering with a lifetime of experience and looking. It was the same painting that he asked his nephew to bring to him on his deathbed so he could retouch it, never satisfied that it or any other painting he made was truly finished.
I noticed several new things about his paintings, things you can barely see in reproductions, if at all: the shimmer of his colors, which is almost opalescent at times. Looking closely in person, you can see that it is achieved by layering pale warm colors against pale cool colors, sometimes over each other, other times dappled side by side, which causes a vibration and a shimmer, especially as one steps back from the painting. I noticed that most of the paintings looked most vibrantly alive from a slight distance. While they were beautiful up close, and his touch with the brush is a delicate and sensitive one, the paintings felt most coherent when standing a few feet away. Many of the paintings are painted from the standing perspective anyway---the gaze of the viewer/painter is generally high, sometimes looking across a room, other times looking down on a table that slants towards the picture plane. Also hard to see except in person is how Bonnard uses a vast range of colors: rarely in the same painting is a large patch of color the same color---he makes it shimmer by shifting the tones and hues slightly as it moves across the surface of the canvas. He stipples and dapples with his brush, and contrasts opaque color with transparent color with great poetry and expressiveness.
My husband was most puzzled and intrigued with the lack of faces. In most of the paintings the faces were obscured, turned away, blurred and vague. I believe it is because very few paintings Bonnard made were meant as portraits. Faces always steal the focus of the painting they are in---it is difficult to turn your attention to anything else. But in a painting by Bonnard, your eye is kept roaming, roaming across the veils of color and mysterious brightly colored shapes. Objects dissolve and transform, bodies are both recognizable and anonymous, feeling is diffused into the whole surface of the canvas, and not focused in any one place or form. Ryan felt that Bonnard’s paintings were akin to Van Gogh’s. I overheard many other museum-goers speaking of a resemblance to Matisse. I thought both were good references: neither painter was afraid of beauty. Bonnard certainly wasn’t. Beauty was his primary subject, more than anything else: the beauty of being, and the pleasure of looking.
Looking at so many Bonnards, I also realized how well he knew animals: there were cats and dogs in almost every room of paintings, writhing, leaping, curled, sleeping, being rubbed, playing, rubbing, gazing. His early 1894 painting of ‘the White Cat’ was especially notable for the way it did not look naturalistically like a cat, but it described the movement and mood of a self-satisfied cat exactly. There was also a trembling graphite line visible around the cat’s legs that reappeared in one of Bonnard’s last self-portraits, also in the show, drawn in repeated thin lines of graphite covered in thin washes of watercolor and gouache, a very lonely painting.
We spent all of our time at the museum in the show, but it still didn’t feel long enough, even after walking through slowly, twice. You could spend a lifetime with those paintings and still be noticing their subtleties, such is the scope of Bonnard’s achievement. My two thoughts leaving the show were that Bonnard was quite right that a painting is first an arrangement of lines and colors on a surface before it is an image or anything else, and my other thought was that the world was so colorful, so beautiful, that his paintings had shown me how to see again.