One Fine Show: ‘Bonnard’s Worlds’ at the Phillips Collection

Welcome to One Fine Show, where Observer highlights a recently opened exhibition at a museum outside of New York City—a place we know and love that already receives plenty of attention.

A gauzy, slightly Impressionistic painting of a nude woman lounging in a bathtub
‘Nude in the bathtub.’ 1936. Oil on canvas, 93 x 147 cm. Purchased from the artist in 1937. Photo: Agence Bulloz

Much has been said about the 2024 Whitney Biennial, but even its detractors have to admit that it presents a good cross-section of the ideas and vibes working their way across contemporary art today. That’s probably why I left with such good feelings about the work of Mary Lovelace O’Neal, particularly Blue Whale a.k.a. #12 (from the Whales Fucking series) (1983). Its wild colors made me feel like a whale, not coupling but coming up to the surface for air, amid a more muted and organic palette seen in contemporary art and, consequently, much of the rest of the show.

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If those fucking whales were a breath of fresh air, a new show at the Phillips Collection, “Bonnard’s Worlds” is a wind tunnel, like stepping into the technicolor of Oz. Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) was not afraid of a little color and this new show collects 60 of his most vibrant works, depicting scenes from his homes in Paris, Normandy, and the French Riviera. The show is presented on nearly the centenary of Phillips Collection’s founder Duncan Phillips’ purchase of his first great Bonnard and shown in association with the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth.

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The bright palette should not undercut the density of these works. Bonnard is the bridge between the blurry masters of Impressionism and the Modernist details of Henri Matisse, so one feels many implied narratives in these paintings. On display in this show is Young Women in the Garden, a work that he started in 1921 but did not complete until 1946 featuring his two great muses Marthe de Méligny and Renée Monchaty. The artist married de Méligny in 1925 and less than a month later Monchaty killed herself. In the painting, Monchaty is smiling out at the painter with deep affection.

This dark ending isn’t necessarily felt in Young Women in the Garden, or in the others that feature Monchaty, but these aren’t exactly nymphaea. They’re complicated. His nudes in bathtubs manage to improve upon even those of Edgar Degas. In this show there is Nude in the Bath (1936), a painting of de Méligny that turns the room and her skin into a rainbow, collapsing time and space into an afternoon soak.

The women are great, but so is the foliage. The Garden (1937) is so lush and overgrown that it’s almost abstract. The Palm (1926) offers a view of Le Cannet encircled by growth, with rich greens of every shade blocking out most of a painting that feels like it was intended to be a seascape. If I’ve focused too much on art historical importance here, The Palm caused one critic to say that Bonnard “actually is of no school . . . he is an independent.” That’s probably the right attitude to have about him. They’re not hard to enjoy on a surface level.

Bonnard’s Worlds” is on view at the Phillips Collection through June 2.

One Fine Show: ‘Bonnard’s Worlds’ at the Phillips Collection