Pierre Bonnard at MoMA: O.K. to Like Him Again?

All artistic reputations are mutable, subject as they are to the shifting winds of fashion and ideology, yet almost no other major reputation in the art of this century has proved to be as vulnerable to the vagaries of critical opinion as that of Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947). Even to regard Bonnard’s as a “major” reputation has sometimes been a matter of acrimonious debate. Picasso famously denounced him as “a piddler,” and in the very year or Bonnard’s death he was brutally attacked in Cahiers d’Art -the house organ of the Picasso mafia-as an artist whose work was of interest only to the kind of people “who know nothing about the great difficulties of art and cling above all to what is facile and agreeable.” In other words, an art suitable to the tastes of complacent millionaires.

At the same time, of course, Bonnard continued to command the admiration of artists who could not be accused of being stupid about painting. In response to the Cahiers d’Art assault, which asked the question “Pierre Bonnard: Is He a Great Painter?” and answered in the negative, an outraged Matisse declared: “Yes! I certify that Pierre Bonnard is a great painter, for today and for the future.” Balthus, who did not especially esteem Matisse, nonetheless agreed with this high assessment of Bonnard. And in this country, Bonnard was much admired by, among others, Milton Avery, Fairfield Porter and Nell Blaine, and, owing to their example, he came to exert a considerable influence on American painting over the last half-century. We now know that even Mark Rothko must also be numbered among the American painters crucially influenced by Bonnard.

With the current Bonnard exhibition drawing crowds at the Museum of Modern Art, it would be nice to think that all such debate about Bonnard’s greatness had at last abated, but such is unhappily not the case. For if Bonnard has been forgiven for not being “avant-garde” in the manner of Picasso and the Cubists, his work now faces an even more formidable adversary from the camp of the radical feminists, who are just as vehemently unforgiving about the fact that he painted so many pictures of his beloved wife Marthe naked in the bathtub. Or so I infer from the remarkable article on “Bonnard’s Bathers” by Linda Nochlin in the current issue of Art in America .

Ms. Nochlin, who is the Lila Acheson Wallace professor of modern art at N.Y.U.’s Institute of Fine Arts, can certainly not be accused of being stupid about painting, either. (Whether she can be accused of being stupid about life is another matter.) She has clearly made a close study of Bonnard’s work, and is anything but blind to the pleasures it affords to the connoisseur of pure painting. Yet those pleasures are compromised for her by what she construes to be the sexual politics of Bonnard’s paintings of his wife. “As a woman and a feminist,” she writes, “I must say I find something distasteful, painful, even, about all that mushy, passive flesh. Yes, I am being naïve abandoning my art-historical objectivity, but certainly contradictory intuitions have a place in one’s reactions to the work of art. I deeply admire, indeed at times, am passionately seduced by the pictorial rhetoric of Bonnard’s bathers; yet, at the same time, and with equal intensity, I am also so repelled by the melting of flesh-and-blood model into the molten object of desire of the male painter that I want to plunge a knife into the delectable body-surface and shout, ‘Wake up! Get out of the water and dry off! Throw him into the bathtub!'”

For Ms. Nochlin, “there is something abject and sinister about Bonnard’s late bathers.” She speaks of his depiction of Marthe in the late bathers as “a kind of elegant pourriture , exquisite rot,” and of the “murderous sensual malignity or the bathers.” Upon the entire “pictorial rhetoric of Bonnard’s bathers,” she thus imposes the pernicious rhetoric of her own sexual politics. And given Ms. Nochlin’s position in the academy, you may be certain that this will now be the way Bonnard’s paintings are “taught” in college classrooms the country over. It is almost enough to make one nostalgic for the animadversions of Cahiers d’Art , for they at least were still mainly concerned with the esthetics of painting. It is also a melancholy reminder of the extent to which the politicization of art history represents yet another episode in the revenge of the philistines, who nowadays are more likely than not to occupy an endowed chair in a distinguished university.

For those surviving members of the art public who are more interested in painting than in the sexual politics of art, however, this Bonnard exhibition will long be remembered as a great event. It is an exhibition that needs to be seen many times, for Bonnard is not the kind of painter whose work can be comprehended at first glance. Picasso was right in observing that in Bonnard’s painting, “you never once get the big clash of the cymbals,” for the subtleties of Bonnard’s pictorial invention do not allow for that kind of facile appeal. Painting from memory and pondering the complexity of his own emotions, he often worked for years on individual pictures, altering their forms and increasing their chromatic heat until it more or less approximated the intensity of feeling he wished his art to convey.

That there is a large element of melancholy in Bonnard’s art-and not only sexual melancholy, though there is plenty of that, too-only adds to the gravity or his achievement. It was once thought ridiculous to regard Bonnard’s paintings as “deep”-for depth of thought and feeling was said to be the prerogative of an avant-garde with which Bonnard had few, if any, affinities-but now we know better. Yet in the paintings he created in the last decades of his life-and especially in those paintings of Marthe in the bathtub-he was certainly a greater painter than Picasso was in the last decades of his life.

This is not to say that the current exhibition at MoMA is perfect in every respect. It is shocking, for example, to find there are no drawings in the exhibition, for drawing was for Bonnard a medium of thought, and it leaves the newcomer to his work with a very incomplete idea of his pictorial imagination to isolate the paintings from the drawings that contributed something essential to their creation. The omission of the drawings also leaves the relation of drawing to color in Bonnard’s painting unilluminated.

Then, too, the landscapes are given only a token representation in this exhibition, and that has the effect of leaving the visitor to the show with a somewhat distorted account of the range of his accomplishments. All the same, this is a marvelous exhibition but more marvelous to visit and revisit than to read about-and it remains on view at MoMA through Oct. 13.