There was a time, in the early decades of the last century, when the newly created museums devoted to modern painting tended to be so closely identified with the work of one or two major artists that these figures came to symbolize, in the public mind, the very spirit of the institutions and their collections. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum was founded as a temple devoted to the mystical abstraction of Vasily Kandinsky and his followers, and there was never any doubt that at the Museum of Modern Art, the reigning deities were Picasso and Matisse. At the Whitney Museum of American Art, alas, the focus-except for being exclusively concerned with American art-was never so clearly defined, though over time Edward Hopper has come to serve as the museum’s tutelary figure.
At the oldest of all our museums of modern art-the Phillips Collection, which was founded in Washington by the late Duncan Phillips in 1921-the featured talent almost from the outset has been Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), and this often underrated and sometimes scorned painter has remained a major presence at the Phillips Collection down to the present day. Hence the marvelous exhibition called Pierre Bonnard: Early and Late , which is now commodiously installed in the lovely rooms of the Phillips townhouse, where in every sense the work looks very much “at home.”
As Jay Gates, the director of the Phillips Collection, reminds us in a forward to the catalog of the exhibition, “In 1925 Duncan Phillips was among the first in America to assert the modernity of Bonnard’s work and to create a setting for its appreciation. Between 1925 and 1954 Phillips accumulated the largest and most diverse collection in the United States of paintings, drawings, and prints by Bonnard. Both artist and collector maintained a correspondence over the course of twenty years. When Bonnard came to America to serve on the jury of the Carnegie International in 1926, he visited the Phillips Memorial Gallery [as it was then called] …. At one point during the visit, Bonnard asked to borrow Marjorie’s paint box”-Mrs. Phillips was herself an accomplished painter-“to add color to his painting entitled Early Spring (1910), which was then hanging in the museum’s main gallery.”
The exhibition that Elizabeth Hutton Turner, senior curator of the Phillips Collection, has mounted in the Early and Late show isn’t as large as the 1998 Bonnard retrospective organized by John Elderfield at the Museum of Modern Art. Yet because the current show adds prints, posters, screens, books, sculptures and photographs to its excellent selection of early and late paintings, it’s an exhibition that gives us a wider-ranging account of Bonnard’s interests and accomplishments than most of us are used to seeing. The photographs-particularly the photographs of his beloved Marthe, the principal subject of so many paintings-are especially interesting. For while there is nothing even remotely “photographic” to be seen in Bonnard’s paintings, the photographs were clearly useful to the artist in determining some of the “views” of his pictorial motifs. They sometimes have the quality of preliminary sketches.
In pondering the implications of the current exhibition, it may be useful, too, to be reminded that what especially impressed Duncan Phillips about Bonnard-his total independence from the received opinions of his time-was precisely what caused so much adverse criticism to be heaped upon Bonnard’s work at various times in the 20th century. That the artist remained utterly indifferent to so many developments that were elsewhere acclaimed-Cubism, Dada, Surrealism and abstraction of every variety-could not be forgiven. And when Bonnard compounded the offense by openly avowing his debt to Monet, it was inevitable that he would be written off by the critics as a latter-day Impressionist, which in the heyday of Cubism and Dada was tantamount to a death sentence for any painter’s reputation.
It’s no coincidence that it wasn’t until “late” Monet came to be rediscovered as an early 20th-century master of pictorial color that Bonnard, too, began to be recognized as one of the most radical color painters of the modern era. There’s more chromatic invention to be found in almost any square inch of paintings like The Red Checkered Tablecloth (1910), among the early pictures, and the White Interior (1932) and The Large Bath, Nude (1937-39), among the later works, than in many large-scale surveys of contemporary color abstraction. Yet because Bonnard continued to the end to derive his inspiration from direct observation-his own shorthand term for it was “Nature”-and remained devoted to domestic interiors in so many of his major paintings, the trendiest criticism never understood his genius. Even more contemptible in recent years have been the political attacks by the feminist critics who object to Bonnard’s paintings of his beloved Marthe’s naked body.
Never mind. As the Goncourt brothers observed somewhere in the Journals they kept in the 19th century, a painting hanging in a museum is bound to be exposed to a multitude of idiotic opinions. It’s all part of what Bonnard himself, in a letter to Matisse, called “the absurdities” that inevitably accompany the life of art. In this first decade of the 21st century, Bonnard has triumphantly survived the condescension and criticism he was obliged to endure in his lifetime, and we are all indebted in no small degree to the Phillips Collection for contributing so much for so long to this happy outcome.
Pierre Bonnard: Early and Late remains on view at the Phillips Collection in Washington through Jan. 19, 2003, and will then travel to the Denver Art Museum from March 1 to May 25, 2003.