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You’ll Never Know Yourself: Bonnard and the Color of Memory

Pierre Bonnard’s revolutionary and controversial use of color became a means toward unlocking his past and the truths of his own self. But what if, ultimately, there was nothing to find? 

Pierre Bonnard, The Bath, 1925

For years, Pierre Bonnard juggled the love of two of his models. The women were Marthe de Méligny, who would eventually become the artist’s wife, and Renée Monchaty, who would kill herself in spurned grief. In Young Women in the Garden, Bonnard painted them both. They are in a bourgeois backyard garden, like something out of a Renoir or Manet, at a large table adorned with a basket of fruit. Monchaty is the focal point of the scene. She sits in a chair, turned toward the viewer; her head rests innocently in her hand. She appears contented, at ease. In the bottom corner of the scene, looking not at the viewer but toward Monchaty, De Méligny looks quietly bemused, her profile nearly cut out of the frame.

Bonnard ultimately left Monchaty for De Méligny. Sensing that his marriage to De Méligny was imminent, and that his affections were fading, Monchaty fatally shot herself on her bed. More sensationally, another version has it that Monchaty slit her wrists in the bath so that Bonnard would arrive to find her dead. Whatever the case, Monchaty’s suicide was one of the central definers, tragedies, and regrets of Bonnard’s life.

Pierre Bonnard, Young Women in the Garden, ca. 1921-23, reworked 1945-46

Bonnard lived with De Méligny for close to fifty years, and he painted her for longer. Even after she died, he conjured her from memory on his canvas. Five years after she’d died, he depicted her just as he had before. Here she is applying makeup at her toilette or soaking in the tub, still alive on his canvas. Bonnard portrayed her nearly four hundred times, but there is not a single portrait in which she is clearly shown. In Young Women in a Garden, she is cut partially out of the scene. In the numerous paintings of her lying languidly in a tub or walking about nude or in a towel or sitting in the sunroom, she is defined by the light striking her; it mystifies her, confuses her. If her face is shown at all, its particulars change frequently. It is only her body that stays the same, though sometimes even that begins to disappear. In Bonnard’s representations, De Méligny is hyperflexible, almost boneless, her form like that of a ghost. She looks about thirty years old in every painting, whether she was twenty-five or seventy or dead at the time. De Méligny, unlike anyone else Bonnard painted—besides, perhaps, himself—existed in the ethereal space of Bonnard’s own memory. His wife was the vehicle through which he could remake his past. Perhaps, these paintings seem to say, Monchaty never did commit suicide because of him. Here is the evidence: a beautiful, phantom woman is enjoying the silver-blue waters of a bath right here. This is the present and the future; with sufficient will, the past might no longer have power.

André Ostier, Pierre Bonnard 1941 © André Ostier

How do any of us make sense of our past? Bonnard’s past was particularly messy: a former lover’s suicide and a wife whom he never seemed to know fully. “How can we live without our lives?” wrote Steinbeck. “How will we know it’s us without our past?” “Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory,” currently up at the Tate Modern, is a retrospective that looks mostly at his work from the turn of the twentieth century and beyond. Paintings by fauvists like Matisse, as well as photographs of Bonnard, round out the show. (The best photograph of Bonnard is of him with one of his six dachshunds, Poucette, a name which translates to something approaching “Thumbelina.”) The central takeaway from the exhibition is that Bonnard’s fervent, inventive, sometimes bizarre use of color in his mid-t0-late career was his solution to piecing together his broken past. Two years before he died, Bonnard returned to “Young Women in the Garden.” The last time he’d touched the painting had been in 1923, when both De Méligny and Monchaty had been alive. Now, twenty-two years later, on the precipice of his own death, he changed an aspect of it: he painted the ground a dirty, golden yellow. Bonnard had begun using yellow in a mode similar to Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh. In Gauguin’s Nevermore, yellow becomes the color of escape—to other rooms, to dreams, to alternate realities. The painting is of a Tahitian woman that combines an inverted posing of Edouard Manet’s Olympia with references to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.” But it is the colors of the room that were of greatest interest to Bonnard: the room is composed of vibrant blues and reds, and their designs appear to be pulled from a Japanese ukiyo-e print. The woman’s head lies on the only spot of yellow in the painting. She is in a waking dream—both here and not. With the yellowing of the ground in Young Women in the Garden, Bonnard used the color as a symbol of escape. He gave the central women in his life a way out of this garden. With this change of color, he seemed to finally let them go.

Pierre Bonnard, Nude in an Interior c. 1935. Courtesy National Gallery of Art

Color was Bonnard’s arbitrator of emotion but it was also his arbitrator of space. For years, Bonnard painted the rooms of his childhood home; later, after he had married De Méligny, he painted the rooms of their shared home in Le Cannet in the South of France. These rooms were “analogues of human experience. They contained memories and told stories about their inhabitants’ lives and status,” wrote Nicholas Watkins in his late-nineteenth-century monograph of the artist. Bonnard’s painted rooms were separated by colors rather than walls—a bright red, for instance, might imply an indoor space and a pale blue might imply an outdoor one. With his use of color, there was no need for typical figurative structuring. Color itself would also become the subject of a piece, with the viewer meant to follow the light as it colored and highlighted space, taking one’s eyes outside of a house until, for instance, it landed on the sea so that one might feel as though he’s just flown through a dream. “It’s almost as if he’s trying to capture the mood as it passes into the past,” Matthew Gale, the head of displays at the Tate Modern, said of Bonnard’s use of color, “trying to fix it before it gets out of reach.”

Bonnard’s work hasn’t always been respected—nor is it necessarily universally respected now—and his use of color has been castigated for its supposed indecisiveness and meaninglessness. Picasso was perhaps his greatest detractor, once snapping to a reporter, “Don’t talk to me about Bonnard. That’s not painting what he does.” Clement Greenberg felt similarly—“smells permanently of the fashions of 1900-14”—but it was Picasso who was most merciless, telling a reporter:

He never goes beyond his own sensibility. He doesn’t know how to choose. When Bonnard paints a sky, perhaps he first paints it blue, more or less the way it looks. Then he looks a little longer and sees some mauve in it, so he adds a touch or two of mauve, just to hedge. Then he decides that maybe it’s a little pink too, so there’s no reason not to add some pink. The result is a potpourri of indecision. If he looks long enough, he winds up adding a little yellow, instead of making up his mind what color the sky really ought to be. Painting can’t be done that way. Painting isn’t a question of sensibility: it’s a matter of seizing the power, taking over from nature, not expecting her to supply you with information and good advice.

Picasso could not be more wrong. Bonnard was constantly changing his paintings, particularly the colors, because he was adjusting the painting’s mood. Bonnard was not responding to nature, he was responding to himself in nature and the changes he saw therein. When he painted his wife phantasmal and languorous in the tub, he was not interested in transcending what a bathtub might look like or even what his wife might look like; he was seeing his own self in her figuration, leaking out, ceasing slowly to exist. If he changed, so, too, did the image. This is why De Méligny was never depicted the same twice; she was never the same because she wasn’t herself. She was Bonnard’s shifting projection of himself. Bonnard understood that beauty is not reliable; what is beautiful one day might be rotted, decayed, destroyed the next. An addition of blue or silver was not a response to a change in the color of the water; it was, instead, Bonnard’s shifting response to his own mortality, his own regrets of his past, his own dynamic feelings.

Pierre Bonnard, The Bowl of Milk, c.1919

The English author Julian Barnes wrote an extensive essay on Bonnard in which he claimed that minimal attention should be paid to Bonnard’s personal life when considering his art. “A little biography is a dangerous thing,” Barnes wrote, adding: “It doesn’t really matter whether an artist has a dull or an interesting life, except for promotional purposes.” When I spoke to him at his house near the Hampstead Heath a few years ago, Barnes told me that Bonnard is his favorite artist, but in his essay he seems to miss the critical fact that while doting too long on the personal lives of artists can indeed be distracting, no artist works in an emotional vacuum, especially not one like Bonnard who worked almost exclusively by drawing from—and rewriting—his own life.

Bonnard, like many artists, was working to find himself and sort through his past. He lingered on days and moments, looking for clues as to what had gone wrong and what to make of himself. His self-portraits are testaments to this search. In them, Bonnard is isolated, his face raw and red, the colors searingly alive as they perform the inverted task of showing just how dead he was inside. The shelves and tiles in the bathroom around him glisten fluidly, but his face is worked into a permanent expression of grief—a perverse rigor mortis. In one bathroom-mirror self-portrait called Boxer, the artist raises up his small, almost-emaciated fists, as if he wants to fight either himself or this idea of himself. In another self-portrait, he looks confused as to who he even is; he is bald, exceptionally disordered, unsure even of his own reflection. He is not holding his paintbrush. The viewer has not caught him faithfully representing himself; he has, instead, reconstructed his feelings of inconsolable loneliness. And yet, even by looking at and reflecting upon his own self, he seems to realize that he has come no closer to understanding. That he lets the viewer in on this process of failure is the principle achievement of his self-portraits.

Pierre Bonnard, Self Portrait, c.1938

Perhaps this is also why he was so insistent on depicting De Méligny. By capturing her in the web of his own mood, he hoped to divine his own feelings through her. Like a writer who does not know what he feels until he begins to write about it, Bonnard took stock of himself through painting De Méligny from memory. To Picasso, this was a mark of indecisiveness and a lack of control; to Bonnard, it was a form of therapy, dynamic and changing.

In John Banville’s The Sea, the protagonist, Max, is an art historian writing a monograph of Bonnard. Max constantly compares his own wife, Anna, to De Méligny. Anna has “helpless hands with palms upturned”; De Méligny in the tub, in Max’s supposition, has hands “stilled in the act of supination.” Max has, essentially, no personality; he does not have a center from which to guide his decisions and moods. He creates a sense of his self through his wife. He struggles to write the monograph because he has nothing to say; he wants only to live in the life of Bonnard and De Méligny rather than to create something from it. And just as Banville draws a parallel between Anna and De Méligny, Max is also a kind of stand-in for Bonnard: rudderless and voided of a personality and selfhood. Banville makes his point explicit: “We are defined and have our being through others.”

Pierre Bonnard, Nude in the Bath, 1925

De Méligny is the key to Bonnard’s personality because she was his personality. She became the vehicle through which he existed. As she, in his painted depictions, slumps in the tub, looks out onto their property in Le Cannet, stands naked in her room, or sits calmly next to the fireplace, their selves intermingle. He is not looking at her so much as inhabiting her. Throughout nearly all of his paintings, De Méligny remains surrounded by darkened yellows. Sometimes she is clad in brighter reds, and the space-separating color technique he used shows her existential separation but also the separation of her mind as at once his and hers. It wasn’t until he’d known her for thirty years that he found out she was not, in fact, born Marthe de Méligny, but instead had the more pedestrian name of Maria Boursin.

Approaching the end of his life, at age seventy-eight, when Bonnard went back to add that bit of yellow to the ground in Young Women in the Garden, he added one more color change as well: a gilded, yellow shine to Monchaty. Bonnard made Monchaty even brighter. She stood out, even more, as the center of the work. Perhaps, having failed to find himself in his late wife, Bonnard thought that Monchaty might have been the key. But still, that was never the issue. He was, like so many of us, unable to see himself fully—whether he was looking at himself straight on in his mirror self-portraits or projecting himself onto De Méligny, who was, of course, never even Marthe de Méligny at all.

 

Cody Delistraty is a writer and critic in Paris and New York.

This story originally appeared on The Paris Review