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 TimeBonnard’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 MasterIt 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.


6 thoughts on “Revisiting Bonnard in Thought

  1. Very interesting Aletha. I am not a visual artist but I have asked myself that question as I look into art galleries – the gallery of modern art in Brisbane has an exhibition that includes giant interactive pieces.

  2. Gabe, I do think that certain artists of every genre prompt one to ask about the future — not that their art must necessarily point the way — but that they make it apparent how fluid art and “the future” is. I think Bonnard is one of those artists, full of ideas and possibilities.

  3. Aletha, I share your enthusiasm for Bonnard. His paintings are lovely and very complex. Last summer I was at the Phillips Collection, sitting in wonder in front of one his masterpieces. I couldn’t believe the number of people who walked by, hardly giving the painting a glance. I guess they were just making the rounds after seeing Renoir’s Boating Party and maybe had never heard of Bonnard. For me he is an equal to Renoir, who, by the way, is my favorite impressionist.

    I also read your 2008 post on Diebenkorn. He is also one of my favorites. I’m blown away by his early figurative works, as well as his later abstracts. I don’t know exactly why, but I’m especially intrigued with his Ocean Park series.

    Frank Warner
    San Francisco

  4. Thank you, Frank, for your thoughtful comment. Bonnard and Diebenkorn and Renoir, also, they are wonderful painters who teach us some of what is possible with color. “Lovely and complex” — that just about says it all!

  5. dear Aletha as long as therre are artists such as you
    Painting will never die I wish you happy festivities

  6. Thank you, Victor, for these very kind words. Painting is very strong, and it will always prosper as long as there are people because it is part of what makes us human. It’s been around for over 30,000 years, and it’s still going strong.

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