French Twist

The new DAM show highlights Pierre Bonnard's idiosyncratic vision.

Chanzit uses the two paintings to show how Bonnard put his compositional elements around the edges, leaving the middle empty. She also illustrates his use of hidden animals, figures and other things throughout his paintings, as well as the wide array of brushstrokes that appear in each work. He does different passages in different styles, making his paint as thick as putty in some sections and as thin as veils in others.

On the adjacent wall to the left of "Europa" and "Earthly Paradise" are two of Bonnard's most frequently reproduced pieces: "France-Champagne," from 1891, and "La Revue blanche," from 1894. The two posters are very different in style and spirit from the considerably newer paintings. "France-Champagne" is a classic art-nouveau piece commanded by a sinuous linear depiction of a woman. In it, Bonnard employs the blank areas of the paper as important pictorial elements -- just like in Japanese prints. According to Chanzit, it was Bonnard's "France-Champagne" that inspired his friend Toulouse-Lautrec to take up poster design.

Making the switch from the two little early posters to the two big late paintings is a jarring experience. The progression of pieces in the show does not make sense -- and that is the greatest problem with non-chronological installations. What could possibly be learned from the experience of going first to "Europa" and "Earthly Paradise" and then to "France-Champagne" and "La Revue blanche"?

Straight ahead is "The Dining Room in the Country," from 1913; it's hung on the back wall of the second of the Hamilton rooms and pulls viewers into the "Inside and Outside" gallery, which features Bonnard's paintings of rooms with views.

The next gallery sends us back in time to the nineteenth-century Japanesque nouveau of the posters at the beginning of the show. As visitors round the corner, they're confronted with one of Bonnard's most revered pieces, "Nannies' Promenade, Frieze of Carriages," a four-panel lithographic screen done in 1895 and printed in 1899. The screen is breathtaking, and radical in its simplicity; seeing it in person is a rare treat. I just wish it were standing near the similarly conceived "France-Champagne" and the even more closely related "Revue blanche" instead of being a whole room away. Also in this space is "Screen with Rabbits," a six-panel oil on paper and canvas from 1902-1906. Across the top are erotic scenes alternating with landscapes, and running across the bottom are rabbits frolicking in natural settings.

The following room holds Bonnard's highly abstracted landscapes, some of the most beautiful paintings in the show. The anchor is "The Terrace," from 1918, a billboard-sized mass of swirling paint carried out in every gorgeous color imaginable and depicting a terrace on the edge of a wild landscape. The trees are seamlessly integrated into the sky in overlapping amorphous masses, showing why later modern painters looked to Bonnard for inspiration. The top half of the painting, ostensibly representational, is actually completely abstract.

The show continues through a series of smaller galleries, including one behind a partition that includes nude studies and even photos of Bonnard's longtime companion, Marthe de Méligny (a name she made up), whom he met in 1893. She was his principal muse throughout his life, though Bonnard did not marry her until 1925, when de Marthe forced him to after catching him in an affair with his model, Renée Monchaty. Soon after learning the two had married, Monchaty committed suicide. How French, n'est-ce pas?

By the standards of our own time, Bonnard, who died in 1947, did beautiful paintings that were hardly radical, with their Japanese ladies and cotton-candy gardens. But Chanzit hopes people remember that Bonnard was a rebel -- and in that, at least, he was genuinely modern.

Bonnardis a worthy successor to the DAM's Toulouse-Lautrecand Matisse shows of years past; but strangely, it also connects with last year's Alice Neel, which looked at a New York artist working in the second half of the twentieth century. Like Neel, Bonnard lived in a place and time when the giants of art history were walking in the neighborhood -- but also like her, rather than go along with them, he chose to simply stand off to one side.

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