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National Review
National Review
2 Dec 2023
Brian T. Allen

NextImg:Fort Worth’s Kimbell at 50 Salutes Pierre Bonnard

{I } love visiting Fort Worth, “where the West begins,” as they say, for its high spirits, civic pride, friendliness, and its stellar art museums. A couple of weeks ago, I was there to see Bonnard’s Worlds, the Kimbell Art Museum’s characteristically perfect look at Pierre Bonnard’s paintings of hearth, home, and, since he lived on the French Riviera near Cannes, lush gardens by the sea.

Bonnard (1867–1947) might be the very last Impressionist. Art history credits him as a Nabi inspired by Gauguin. However steeped he was in the aesthetic of Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Degas, or anyone else, though, he’s his own thing. And it seems he never painted a clunker.

I’ve been planning to write about Bonnard’s Worlds when it’s cold outside since it’s a warm-you-up exhibition. Living in Vermont, where we’ve had snow and ice already, and since today’s December 1, I declare it officially cold, not yet true winter but close enough.

Bonnard’s Worlds is a new take on an artist who has had a place in the critical sun for more than a hundred years. By 1900, he’d established himself as a gifted, accomplished artist, mostly in prints. By the late 1920s, in America, connoisseurs of French Modernism such as Duncan Phillips worshipped his chromatically lush paintings. He’s not as expansive a visionary as Picasso or Matisse but, in his niche, he’s brilliant.

Bonnard’s Worlds is just that. It’s art meets biography meets Bonnard’s spaces, from Paris and then to the countryside, his garden, his terrace and its views, his women, his dogs and cats, interiors seen from windows and doors, his kitchen, the bath and dressing room, and then the mirror and his self-portraits. It’s not organized chronologically but by category, though the show pushes us, sensitively and intelligently, from Bonnard’s early years in Paris to his seductive, enchanting views of his wife bathing, painted in the late ’30s into the ’40s.

Landscape at Le Cannet, from 1928, isn’t the star of Bonnard’s Worlds. The exhibition is an ensemble performance, with every painting a gem. That said, at nine feet wide, Landscape at Le Cannet anchors the first, overview gallery. Here, we see both the exhibition’s basic themes and Bonnard’s early days.

The picture is spacious and sweeping. It’s also Bonnard-specific, and not only because he painted it. It’s a morning view from just above Le Bosquet, the modest villa he had just bought in Le Cannet, a town just north of Cannes. The house is in the center foreground, by a big, green tree. It’s not a tart green in itself and at first seems quieted by a hint of yellow and blue. At the base of the tree, Bonnard painted a row of deep-red flowering shrubs. The red makes the green tree pop, telling us that his home might be modest but to him it’s spectacular.

Bonnard’s Paris-based parents were well-to-do enough to send him to law school and bourgeois enough for him to feel he should go. He’s another lawyer who found truth and beauty. He supported himself as an artist, never lived large, and had just bought his little villa.

Most of Bonnard’s work is focused and intimate, but Bonnard’s Worlds starts big. He’s known best for his color, and Landscape at Le Cannet is a guide. Pink clouds float in an aqua sky. Mauve mountains descend to green and periwinkle hills, depending on where the light hits. Pink and orange geometric shapes make farm buildings. The foreground’s taupe, green, and orange, with an orange cow and Bonnard, we think, barely more than a stick figure but a voluminous one, reposing like a Greek god on a temple, or like an odalisque in charge.

The painting looks splendid. It’s a Bonnard primer but also a new favorite at the Kimbell, which bought the picture in 2018 and is capping its 50th-anniversary celebration with the Bonnard show. The Kimbell was established as a museum displaying the best of the best. Landscape at Le Cannet is very much at home.

Pierre Bonnard, The Riviera, 1923, oil on canvas.

At the beginning of the show, pictures such as The Riviera, from 1923, are a tip of the hat to Pissarro’s thick surfaces, mostly dense dabs of pure color as if paint were yarn. The Outer Boulevard, from 1904, is, like many late Pissarro city scenes, a bustling blur. Even the buildings quiver from a hidden energy. Earthly Paradise, from the late Teens, introduces us to Marthe de Méligny (1869–1942), Bonnard’s mistress for years and, from 1926 to her death, his wife. Crazy bitch she might have been, but she’s often in his work, especially the exquisite bathing nudes.

Bonnard’s Women with a Dog, from 1891, an early picture, introduces us indirectly to Vuillard, Bonnard’s friend and fellow Nabi, via its ruling check pattern. Bonnard almost always starts a work with flattened planes of color, form, and pattern. Women with a Dog also predicts his love of intimate moments from everyday life and his feeling for animals. His cats, sometimes very present, sometimes shadows, and his dachshunds, all named Poucette, are staples.

Left: Pierre Bonnard, The Garden, 1937, oil on canvas. (Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris, © 2023 Artists Rights Society, N.Y.) Right: Pierre Bonnard, Before Noon, 1946 (begun 1940), oil on canvas. (Private collection © 2023 Artists Rights Society N.Y.)

Bonnard’s a voyeur but mostly of the countryside. He’s a pilgrim, too, wandering, looking, recording, and also worshipping. And he’s open to change and surprise. The Garden, from around 1936, is another Bonnard primer. It’s his garden at its densest and juiciest and at peak color. He seems to want to break all the rules since, at first, it’s a muddle. A path gives it structure, as does a squat orange tree, a trapezoid of blue sky, different plants shown as patches of unified color, and, on the far right, a strip of what looks like the edge of his house. Birds dot the path. To me, he’s after the urgency, method, and madness of the organic world. At 50-by-39 inches, it isn’t small. It’s still human-scale. It’s abstract, but one feels present in the garden.

I’ll toss Picasso into the mix since I’ve written so much about him this year, the 50th anniversary of his death. He didn’t like Bonnard’s work, and The Garden shows us why. Bonnard was too decorative, he said. “He fills up the whole picture surface,” he told his mistress, Françoise Gilot, “touch by touch, centimeter by centimeter,” with no juxtapositions, no contrasts “of black and white, of square and circle, of sharp point and curve.”

Bonnard, he thought, never seized control of nature, and he’s correct, but nature isn’t in the business of juxtapositions, certainly not the ones Picasso prized. Bonnard was in the business of interpreting nature, which isn’t concerned with, as Picasso wanted, “crashing cymbals.” Nature is calculated and cunning, but not in that way.

Before Noon, in a gallery of art that depicts Bonnard’s terrace at Le Bosquet, was started in 1940 and finished in 1946, the year before he died. It’s gorgeous, first of all, but, strange to say, it made me think of El Greco, and not because it looks like anything that El Greco did. From the late 1570s until his death in 1614, El Greco worked in Toledo. He never left Spain and very rarely went to Madrid, where he wouldn’t have learned anything, company town that it was.

El Greco started in Toledo knowing all the tricks of Roman Mannerism in the 1570s, tricks absorbed when he worked in Rome before he moved to Spain. These were enriched by his love of Venetian color acquired during his years as a very young man in Venice. In Toledo, he took this composite and, over time, pushed it to an extreme. Figures got taller and twistier, colors brasher and more acidic, but the bones don’t change.

Bonnard hardly worked in isolation. Based in Le Cannet, he spent a couple of months each year in Paris. His close friend Matisse lived in Nice. Still, Before Noon fits what seems a template. It’s flat and spacious, and radically so. It’s enclosed but outdoors, theatrically so. He pushes color, especially yellow, white, and red, to maximum intensity. The light’s so intense, too, that it makes objects shimmer so much they seem weightier. I can see its lineage in The Outer Boulevard, in Early Spring, from 1908, and The Riviera. Picasso’s criticism exposes not Bonnard’s vices but his virtues, and Bonnard sticks to his guns.

Left: Pierre Bonnard, The Open Window, 1921, oil on canvas. (The Phillips Collections, © 2023 Artists Rights Society, N.Y.) Right: Pierre Bonnard, The French Window with a Dog, 1927, oil on canvas. (Private collection, Dallas © 2023 Artists Rights Society, N.Y.)

Decorative he might be, but Bonnard is an exacting painter with an eye for what’s spare. The Open Window, from 1921, has a luscious palette but is big on geometry, except for the black kitten looking like an imp in the lower right corner. Or the figure petting him. This is a Bonnard trick. He dazzles us with color, or makes us straighten our back with his own rigor, and then, as a quip, he sneaks figures into the scene. In The French Window with a Dog, from 1927, one of many Poucettes pokes his nose into the picture while, out the window, the distant townscape plays peekaboo behind the palms.

A tease, yes, but there are enough rectangles and triangles for a geometry class. He also paints pots and pans, baskets of fruit, and vases packed with mimosas, all looking exotic and electric. Bonnard said early in his days at Le Cannet that he felt he was living in the land of A Thousand and One Nights, not that he flew on any magic carpets. Everything seemed to him to be lush, shot through with tropical color and tropical light. That light seemed to make everything, even a checkerboard tablecloth, crackle.

Gallery view of Pierre Bonnard, The Siesta, 1900, oil on canvas.

Bonnard painted nudes of Marthe de Méligny over 50 years. The Siesta, from 1900, is so sexy and dreamy that it qualifies as soft porn. It’s a classic nude pose, variations of which Titian painted, but it’s based on a Roman-era Hermaphrodite that Bonnard saw at the Louvre. No matter. He didn’t need to be inspired. Every element is plush, from her flesh to the bedding, wallpaper, carpet, what’s on the nightstand, and, on the floor, a sleeping dog bedecked in a blue ribbon. The picture flirts with the pin-up genre, and, yes, it’s carnal, but it’s gentle, too.

The same year, Bonnard painted Man and Woman, a nude depicting the couple. She’s brightly lit, he’s in the dark, and a screen separates them, suggesting isolation or tension, but as much as The Siesta is about delectation, Man and Woman is about intimacy as a day-to-day affair. Bonnard’s very good with nocturnes. He admired Degas’s night scenes and Toulouse Lautrec, but he emphasizes what’s tender, not what’s weird. Degas’s bathtub nudes, painted using models, seem so clinical, as if the forms are coaxed under a microscope.

Pierre Bonnard, Nude in the Bath, 1936, oil on canvas.

Bonnard’s Worlds ends with a bathtub and a mirror and with Marthe and Bonnard in old age. The three large nudes of Marthe soaking in a bathtub, dissolved in light amid tiles, have almost never been seen together. All three show all of Marthe in an off-kilter but full-length, rectangular tub. Seeing all three is a thrill.

The 1936 version, Nude in the Bath, gives us a shallow tub — it seems more like a shell — with blue, yellow, and violet tile rectangles that are so vivid, they shimmer. The second, The Large Bathtub, Nude, in a private collection, enlarges the tub. Most of the bathroom around it is cropped. The tiles glow softly rather than shimmer. It’s from 1937–39. The atmosphere looks blurry, as if from the steam from the hot water. Colors are paler, though the floor looks like a mosaic.

Gallery view of Pierre Bonnard, Nude in Bathtub, 1941–46, oil on canvas.

Bonnard started the third, Nude in Bathtub, now at the Carnegie Institute, around 1940 and finished it in 1946, after Marthe was dead. Colors are bolder, Marthe seems to dissolve, and the tub isn’t white but reflects the blues in the bathroom and the colors outdoors. Poucette reclines in the foreground on a neat, square towel, looking directly at us.

I don’t think Marthe posed for any of these. By 1936, she was pushing 70. The figure in the tub is more or less faceless but seems closer to the lithe young woman in Bonnard’s nudes from 1900. I see them as memory pictures. Bonnard trained himself to work from memory and imagination. He didn’t paint outdoors. He looked and made notes and sometimes drawings, but, in his studio, he created a new vision based on what he’d seen.

The bathtub pictures are abstract, too, still representational, still scenes of everyday life, but gauzy and ethereal like a late Monet waterlily-pond view. Soft and warm, Marthe seems to melt.

Pierre Bonnard, Self-Portrait with Beard, 1920, oil on canvas.

I didn’t not like the group of self-portraits at the end of Bonnard’s Worlds. I see why they’re there. Bonnard painted lots of self-portraits. The show’s storyline — from big and panoramic to up close, personal, and private — suits them. For me, the exhibition has a smash hit in the bathtub nudes, the biggest of which is 48 by 59 inches, and the other two are only a bit smaller. The self-portraits are far smaller and look like they were painted quickly, sketched to look like a selfie.

The self-portraits at the end suggest a Bonnard who was not only self-aware and reflective but a man with struggles or anxieties more profound than what we all experience as humanity’s collateral damage. Unlike many artists, Bonnard might be inward looking, but he wasn’t compulsive about it. His last self-portrait, from 1945, makes the valid point, as a summation, that the worlds Bonnard painted were his worlds. There, in that picture, Bonnard is old and alone. I hope people don’t invest lots of angst into it. It’s the way of all flesh.

I read and enjoyed the catalogue, prepared and led by George Shackelford, the deputy director and chief curator at the Kimbell, and Elsa Smithgall, the chief curator of the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. It’s got good essays on Bonnard’s time in Paris, Normandy, and the Riviera. Entries on each painting in the show are on-point rather than boilerplate grabbed from a registrar’s file. Everything’s illustrated, with lots of details to make readers salivate.

After an hour reading the book, I thought, Lo and behold, I’m experiencing a miracle. A miracle that’s becoming as rare as the Resurrection: This lovely catalogue actually reflects and augments the themes of the exhibition I saw on the walls at the Kimbell. This is what exhibition catalogues once were as a rigorous rule. I’ve written — irked as I’ve been — many times about catalogues that have nada, nought, zip, bupkis, duck egg, and goose egg — I mean nothin’ — to do with the exhibition. Either the essays in such books concern esoteric issues that the curators think museumgoers are too dumb to absorb, or the essays are irrelevant and vehicles for their friends to slap another writing credit on their résumés.

Resurrection, though? Shackelford is a distinguished curator and authority on Gauguin and much else. I don’t know Smithgall, but the Phillips is a serious place that still does things in a tried-and-true way. It’s not a way I’d call traditional or old-fashioned but commonsense. A catalogue is the permanent record of an exhibition. It partners with what the viewers see. It’s heartening to know there are institutions and curators who still do it right.

I wish Smithgall would overhaul the old Phillips house one day to make it feel and look grand, rather than an afterthought the weekend before moving day. That’s one of my army of pet vexations. In the spirit of Christmas wishes, when Bonnard’s Worlds goes to the Phillips next year, I hope the museum, which is in full woke mode, doesn’t pollute Bonnard’s nudes with psycho art history. “The tub looks like a coffin.” “They’re a decadence that enervates.” Or my favorite, from my old professor Linda Nochlin, “They’re masturbatory.”

Donnez-moi un break, s’il vous plait. Bonnard’s work doesn’t — and shouldn’t — fit a Me Too storyline, even though Washington, the Phillips’s home, is all about approved storylines.

Rant delivered. Working together, the Kimbell and the Phillips produced a book to love for its scholarship and its faith in art lovers, few of whom know pop lingo or have Ph.D.s or live on art history’s small beer. The catalogue is faithful to Bonnard, showing how much there is to be gleaned from his work, and to its readers, who buy the book to plumb topics raised by the gallery interpretation.

Bonnard’s Worlds is beautifully arranged and presented, as are all the Kimbell’s exhibitions. The museum bought Landscape at Le Cannet in honor of Kay Fortson, who retired as chair of the Kimbell board after nearly 50 years of leadership. I’ve known all the Kimbell’s directors. They’ve each stood on the shoulders of their predecessors in making a museum that, in a short time, is a distinguished one as well as a national treasure. There’s nothing like the Kimbell, anywhere. It’s certainly the jewel in Fort Worth’s crown.

Fortson, the niece of Fort Worth businessman and philanthropist Kay Kimbell, took over the board when she was a 29-year-old mother of four. She led the charge on dazzling acquisitions, Louis Kahn’s triumph of a building, and the Renzo Piano expansion, which is ten years old this year. She has probably had more impact than any other trustee in the history of American museums.

Early next year, I’ll return to the Kimbell and a few other places for a story on what Texas museums acquired for their collections in 2023. From what I can tell, it’s a feast.