Revisiting Bonnard in Thought
January 17, 2011
Do you know this one? Bonnard’s Nu Dans Le Bain au Petit Chien at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh? I made this fast kids’ crayon version of it when my daughter was a crawler. And I was looking at it again as reproduced in the book Bonnard: The Work of Art Suspending Time.” And I was busy remembering when I saw it in real life during its inclusion in a Bonnard exhibit at the Phillips Collection in 2002. And had you been rich and ready, you could have purchased a version of it here. A fun thought. I’d put it where I could always see it.
The colors of the painting when you see it in real life are surprisingly light. It seems like almost every reproduction gets it too dark. Having known it from books, I was astonished at its lightness when finally I saw the actual painting.
I did a very small color study in a notebook while looking at the actual painting. As always these kinds of drawings are balancing acts of holding the notebook while also holding the crayon box while also jostling with other museum visitors, all as eager as I to see the famous painting.
The color tonality is difficult to photograph, and yet the painting is so lovely, airy, magical. Is worth driving all the way to Pittsburgh to see it. (No matter where you live…)
Prior to Bonnard’s visit to the Phillips, the painting had been a special favorite of mine. Seeing the actual painting, however, was transformative. And it prompted me then to ask a question that I think too few artists ask: what will the future of painting be like?
Nu dans le bain is a jumble of spaces and color. It jolted me into remembering that the primary colors when combined form white light, and I was never prepared for the airy atmospherics of this picture with its nubby, chalky surfaces. The dancing tiles of the painting float and move in response to both color laws and by virtue also of weird optical moiré effects. Marthe’s body (Bonnard’s wife) in the midst of all this has been pulled and stretched as though caught in the gravity of a new physics. It’s in experiencing these dazzling sense perceptions that one recognizes how much more is going on here than just naive drawing.
The big squares and Marthe’s out of perspective body and the random-seeming little floor tiles can appear almost childlike in simplicity, but standing before the painting one experiences the full force of their space-warp. Bonnard’s Bain anticipates in its own quirky way Captain Janeway’s perennial troubles aboard the Starship Enterprise as well as the LSD montage at the conclusion of 2001: A Space Odyssey and the enigmatic black holes of Stephen Hawkings Brief History of Time. Bonnard’s innocent eye and vivid French sensibility for color finds it all in the neat confines of a charming little white bathroom.
Some of Bonnard’s naive drawing could have come straight out of the workshop of the Rohan Master. It not true that Bonnard is very new. He is also very old. And yet, for me, he prompts the question more than any other of the modern artists: what will the future of painting be like?
My impulse in searching for the answer to my question was to make these drawings. Because that’s the way that artists understand each other. With image.