Exhibit of the week
Pierre Bonnard: The Late Interiors
Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York
Through April 19

“Most artists bring greater clarity to their vision over a lifetime,” said John Zeaman in the Bergen Country, N.J., Record. Pierre Bonnard went in the opposite direction. Before 1923, he was known as a painter of Paris cafe society. Then he moved to the south of France and, for the last two decades of his life, devoted himself exclusively to painting luminous and nearly abstract still lifes and interiors. “If paintings of tables laid out for lunch, dogs under tables, and someone pouring tea sound a bit dull, they were far from dull in execution.” Bonnard’s late canvases burst with vibrant oranges, purples, and yellows. “Teacups and saucers quiver” as objects seem on the verge of dissolving into glowing light. It’s no surprise that Bonnard once called himself “the last impressionist.”

That’s pretty much the thesis of a “thought-provoking” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said The Economist. In fact, though, the 80 paintings and drawings here prove a different point. Bonnard was “not a latter-day impressionist after all. He was a modernist, a man looking forward, not back.” For one thing, Bonnard did not paint his scenes directly from life, as the impressionists did. “What we see are his memories,” reconstructed with the help of sketches and notes. He built up visual effects over long stretches of time, adding touches as the mood struck him and often working on several canvases at once. What’s fascinating about this exhibition is the utter uniqueness of his late style.

Often you have to study a painting for a while to even figure out what’s being depicted, said Roberta Smith in The New York Times. “Some of the smaller still lifes are wonderful in their simple refusal of comfortable representational convention.” The deep red and dashes of yellow push the objects in The Dessert, or After Dinner to the edge of abstraction. In Still Life With Greyhound (1923), you may have trouble locating the nearly two-dimensional dog. And even the occasional human figure (usually Bonnard’s wife, Marthe) appears as an “almost-phantom” that takes time to cohere into a recognizable human being. Yet the work that these paintings require of us is essential to their effect. As we identify again and again the same baskets, dishes, fruit, and flowers, we see Bonnard “burnishing his motifs until they approached incandescence.”