14 March, 2019 • • 39.5The ArtsVisual Arts

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Nicolas Liney

Le Bain (1925)

Pierre Bonnard
The Colour of Memory
Tate Modern
23 January – 6 May 2019

Pierre Bonnard met Marthe Boursin getting off a Parisian streetcar in 1893 and they remained together until her death in 1942, although they didn’t marry for at least thirty years. He was twenty-six at the time, a young artist discovering Paris, Paul Gauguin, and success as an illustrator for Felix Fénéon’s short-lived but fiery La Revue Blanche. Marthe, who worked at the Maison Trousselier sewing artificial pearls onto funeral wreaths, told Bonnard that she was sixteen when she was really twenty-four. She called herself Marthe de Méligny, the sort of name fashionable demimondaines ought to have, and concealed her humble origins—only when they married in 1925 did he find out her real name. She was not the first or last love of Bonnard’s life, but for forty-nine years they were always together. As his model, she became the centre of Bonnard’s artistic vision, wrapped up in the poetics of intimism and a world of rural interiors and quiet domesticity safely immured from two world wars, and the languid littoral swathes of southern France. When we think of Bonnard, we think of a vertiginous spool of colour organised into pastoral landscapes and plump still-life arrangements. We also think of Marthe.  

L’Homme et la Femme (1900)

At the turn of the century Bonnard painted L’Homme et la Femme and L’Indolente, breaking with the wild synesthetic fireworks of his Les Nabs associations and embracing the nude, as some impressionists had done a few years before, like Manet and his return to classical, Titian bodies in the early 1860s (Olympia, for example). Both paintings trumpeted a quiet exchange of colour for deep tonal contrasts and a willed and complex formal structure, but also thrummed with a delicate, vulnerable eroticism. The bodies are naked, presumably post-coital (is he dressing or undressing?), thick with the laziness born of familiarity. They confront the viewer front-on, but take no notice. Bonnard had not painted like this before. If the paintings were meant to reveal the couple to the public, they also signified a private retreat, the beginning of a withdrawal that the couple practiced throughout their life.

L’Indolente (1899)

Critics haven’t been particularly kind to Marthe. Timothy Hyman collects anecdotal descriptions of her: “a touchy elf”, “muse and gaoler”, “an uneasy tormenting sprite” who harboured a “persecution complex” and didn’t want other painters “stealing his tricks”. She had a “weirdly savage, harsh voice”, and “hopped about on very high heels like some bright-plumaged bird”. John Berger harshly described her as “a tragically neurasthenic woman: a frightened woman beside herself, and with an obsession about constantly washing and bathing […] excessively demanding and half ‘absent’ as a personality”. Marthe was indeed chronically ill—a skin disease, amongst other things, and perhaps tuberculosis—and the couple led an increasingly reclusive and itinerant life, making regular sojourns along the Atlantic coast, hopping from villa to hotel to villa to hotel. In 1912, Bonnard purchased a small stilted house, “Ma Roulotte” in Normandy, and a villa in Le Cannet, Provence a decade later, lending some sort of permanence and stability to their exilic lives. They had no children. Marthe grew increasingly unwell and unsociable. “For some time now”, Bonnard wrote, “I have been living a very secluded life as Marthe has become completely anti-social” (or did she grow more “wild”, “Marthe étant devenue d’une sauvagerie complete”?). Armed with this scanty historical basis, we tend to see Bonnard’s later work as buoyed by domestic tragedy, hovering between fiercely tender devotion and the fatalistic observation of mortality at work: “He who sings is not always happy”, he confessed in his diary, and his canvasses increasingly descant with tonal brilliance, charged with the impressionist’s triumph of colour and its ability to transform reality.

How do we see Marthe? Often in the bath. Her cocktail of maladies required numerous hours submerged in water, and Bonnard had plumbing and a tub installed in Le Cannet. But Marthe’s bathing also slotted neatly into the tradition of the baigneur (‘bather’) as a set type. Bonnard owned a baigneuse by Renoir of which he was particularly fond, revelling in its fleshiness and classicism. Yet he has more in common with Degas, whose nude bathers are placed mainly inside, washing, drying, moving through the slow awkwardness of the toilette. Bonnard’s earlier paintings show Marthe contorted and stretched into spry, nimble positions or crouched in a basin. There is not—there never is—anything coquette, nothing of the odalisque in Marthe, none of the abstract passivity that interested Matisse. It did not interest Bonnard and it certainly did not interest Marthe. As time goes on, however, particularly from around the 1920s, when they were married and in their fifties, she is painted encased in the bathtub as if entombed, stretched out and refracted, a long somnolent gisante dissolving into the bathwater and into Bonnard’s decorative scheme itself—more art than living, heaving body, like Millais’ ghostly Ophelia, woven into the water’s smutched surface. 

Nue dans le Bain (1936)

Linda Nochlin found these paintings particularly unpalatable—Marthe’s liquefaction, her dissolving like an aspirin, the melting of a flesh-and-blood model into the molten decorative object: “Abject and sinister […] elegant pourriture, exquisite rot […] best when he kills off or mutilates his subject: Marthe dismembered or floating in deathlike passivity”. It is certainly tempting to find the tyranny of the male gaze in Bonnard’s nudes. He was devoted to Marthe, but he was also a cad. He had affairs, and even proposed to his model Renee Monchaty, who committed suicide after he abruptly changed his mind and returned to Marthe. He was exasperated by her apathy: were his paintings a means of mitigating it, of controlling, creating, and mythologizing a feminine ideal he wanted to see? Maurice Denis joked that his friend always “escapes, as if playfully, from a reality that he cannot denounce”—a “fantasy of painting with light”, as Bonnard described his work, but perhaps inseparable from Nochlin’s “fantasy of power”. 

Perhaps. But it is also tempting to see Bonnard’s paintings as wholly absorbed with time and memory, for which sickness and health provide the thematic language. Time is measured by the slow disintegration of bodily health and the quiet stillness left by the cessation of movement. In Colette’s La Vagabonde, the older Margot, advising Rénée Néré on how to look after herself, says somberly “[…] it’s just that we know the value of health and the anguish of losing it.” Watching Marthe bathing through time, in Bonnard’s countless variations, we note a similar nostalgic celebration and dazzling mourning, of physical capabilities. But each painting, viewed individually, attempts to construct and consolidate an individual memory: Marthe’s body never changes in Bonnard’s paintings, even as interiors bloom, wilt and change, and is dominated by the technical range and subtlety of Bonnard’s colour. Even colour is fragile and fleeting, and untethered from the safety of line and edge, threatens to disperse and dissipate, carrying body and memory with it. Bonnard rarely painted his subject matter directly: he famously said that he needed to be seduced by a motif, the vision première, which he would return to incessantly: “I go to check, I come back, I return a little later, I never let myself be absorbed by the object itself.” Bonnard was painting at a time when Proust was just beginning his recherche du temps perdu, and Henri Bergson was writing and lecturing on matière et mémoire, suggesting that our immediate experience is permeated and coloured by the memory of emotions attendant upon previous experiences. To understand what Bergson called the “duration” of one’s total lived experience, one needed the flash of the now—the “intuition”—to prise it open. It is hard not to see Bonnard, like Proust, as deeply influenced by Bergson. For Bonnard, painting—and memory—“has to ripen like an apple; one cannot influence time”. He would ask his models to walk around the studio—they never “sat” for him—and he would attempt to imbibe the atmosphere, making sketches and notes. More pragmatic was photography. The Kodak hand-held camera became available in 1888 and Bonnard was soon using one, developing his own negatives into a succession of small, serialised prints, like a strip of film reel. For Bonnard, photographs were, in effect, memories: he worked from them, but didn’t copy them. They might construct a classical theme which would result in a later painting, like Marthe poised as a Crouching Venus (eventually painted as Nu Accroupi au Tub 1918), or they might catch the serendipity of what Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bonnard’s long-time acquaintance, called “the decisive moment”. Interestingly, Bonnard’s photography stops completely around 1920, just when he was beginning to paint Marthe in the bath.

Bonnard Examining Leaves c. 1900
Martha in Tub c. 1908

But we don’t only see Marthe in a bathtub. Pierre Bonnard met Marthe Boursin at a time when he was illustrating for magazines, books and periodicals, dealing with a wide range of subject matter and characters. At the turn of the century, the art dealer Ambroise Vollard commissioned Bonnard to illustrate Paul Verlaine’s posthumous Parallèlement (1900), and a translation of the classical work by Longus, Daphné and Chloé (1902)Marthe modelled for both works. For the young couple, it was a way of imagining the artistic relationship between painter and subject, but it was also a way of creating their own mythology, literally writing themselves into the pages of Verlaine’s fin-de-siècle smoulder or the Greek pastoral simplicity of Daphnis and Chloe, an ideal they would both come to play out in the course of their life together, creating their own Arcadia in the Ile-de-France. In these early works of illustrated poetry and poetic illustration, we find a sensuous world sharply different from Bonnard’s later nudes, hovering between eroticism and innocence.

Daphnis et Chloé (1902)
Parallèlement (1900)

It is important, nevertheless, to question Bonnard’s relationship to the feminine, to feminism, and to Marthe, set especially against the backdrop of the Third Republic in which Bonnard had been raised and educated. The repeal of censorship laws after the fall of the Second Empire precipitated a sharp increase in feminist literature, spearheaded by Maria Deraismes, which clashed stridently with the draconian moral policies of the notorious René Berger. As it often goes, sexuality was the locus and reflection of deep political and social change as much as it was the domain of quiet domestic art. Bonnard’s early career was certainly caught up in its politics: collaborations with Alfred Jarry yielded two illustrated almanacs of Père Ubu—that portly, farcical symbol of the French state (after whom the Bonnards’ daschund was later named)—and Soleil de Printemps, a work aimed squarely at conventional sexual morality, dressed in egregious priapic bombast. The nude, perhaps obviously, played right into this wider debate. Octave Uzanne, whose book on the Parisienne was published in 1894, lamented the nudes of artists like Félicien Rops and Auguste Rodin, which “broke with the tradition of an impassive and chaste idealism” and reeked of sensualism:

art and literature have never been so profoundly absorbed by the consideration of woman as at this present day, with the culture of her body, the study of her nerves, of her caprices, her desires. Woman does not only inspire the artist of today: she dominates him […] this modern nude figure peeps at us everywhere, her legs marked at the knee by the sharp contrast of the black stocking fastened by the eccentric garter.

Uzanne articulated a histrionic terror, abjectly fearful of the female nude, and terrified, moreover, of the potential reversal of roles—of the nude, now ubiquitously adorned in the black stockings that Degas and Rops had used to differentiate between prostitutes and respectable women, defiantly staring right back at him. Bonnard’s early paintings brayed at bourgeois propriety, and he continued to subtly redress the relation between male and female, and his relationship with Marthe. Marthe would often photograph Bonnard nude, which might be reworked later into a painted nude—either male or female. Matisse, with whom Bonnard shared a long and productive friendship, even photographed him as a humorous odalisque, a small bespectacled and suited man against the luxurious arabesque curtains of the artist’s studio. An early nude, Siesta (1899), depicts Marthe languorously reclining on her stomach, a direct evocation of the antique sculpture in the Louvre, The Sleeping Hermaphrodite, a witty joke about the erotics of sexual ambiguity. Whether Marthe was privy to these ironic barbs and witticisms, or perhaps even complicit, it is important to place these early exercises against the later, latently tragic works, and to remember that Bonnard’s nudes, despite their pursuit of memory and colour, had their origins in something more impersonal and incendiary.

Matisse: Bonnard as Odalisque (1929)


Nicolas Liney is reading for a DPhil in Classics at Christ Church College.