In this continuing saga of little squares, brought here in contradistinction to the art of Ellsworth Kelly, which I criticized in a much earlier blog, we now turn to a perhaps strange conjunction of interests.
In the Middle Ages little squares were often a feature of the skies which illuminated Bible stories in innumerable decorated manuscripts. In those pictures the tesselated sky seems to harken the divine presence. Certainly the use of tesselations in art is often associated with divinity and not merely in Western cultures. The example above comes from a manuscript at the Metropolitan Museum of Art depicting the Last Judgement.
Whether Bonnard was inspired by illuminated manuscripts or by other medieval imagery — or not — he certainly uses little squares to achieve something of a similar result. Only in Bonnard’s world the “heaven” has become a bathroom where Marthe his wife plays the role of a kind of “Eve.” Interestingly enough, though, when Bonnard painted the series of pictures devoted to Marthe and her bath, his wife was quite elderly. Indeed, Marthe died before the picture above was completed.
The bathroom that was the real setting for the picture was not multicolored either. It was simply and completely white. The colors of Bonnard’s many squares are entirely inventions, quite similar in their way to my little invention of squares described in a previous post. Here this “exercise” in arranging colors becomes a metaphor for something like a paradise on earth as well a kind of prevision of theoretical physics. In Bonnard’s bathroom the tiles twist and distort into a warped space/time of memory, regret and desire. We can note certainly that the squares are not rigorously defined in a representation of true perspective. Yet they are not disorderly in an unmeaningful way either. Bonnard possessed a great ingenuity and feeling for distortion. It becomes a crucial aspect of his art. These distortioned tiles contain a method in madness both as regards perspective and color.
So, we still have little squares quite like Ellsworth Kelly’s — in their way — yet invested with meaning and with roots that flow back deeply into history. So far our squares are still part of the picture, but there are ways also that squares play a role in picture making without being at all visible. We’ll turn to these invisible squares in the next post.
Bonnard’s painting, Marthe in the Tub, belongs to the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh.