Eye Candy: Pierre Bonnard at the Phillips Collection, p. 2

I have written elsewhere that one of modern art's defining qualities is its subjectivism. The artist's rendering of an object is never about that object itself but rather his or her perception or experience of it. Some, like the impressionists with which Bonnard is often compared, experimented with trying to capture how light from an object actually strikes the optical nerves. They were interested in that initial impression made by an object on the eye before the viewer's brain stepped in and interpreted. This is but another take on subjectivism, for, again, the focus is on the viewer rather than the object viewed, the light coming off of an object rather than that object. Whatever the style of painting, the artist's goal is to communicate his or her insight into reality. In Bonnard's case, the artist invites us into his head to a place where light and color reign. The Phillips Collection's commentary describes Bonnard's approach as "inverse mimesis." "Rather than imitate his surroundings," it explains, "everything in Bonnard's universe yielded to his power to see it. ... To see Bonnard's painting would be to experience a sudden revelatory moment - literally to see the world as new again through his eyes."

I rather enjoy Bonnard's vision of the world. It makes for an interesting contrast with that of Gustav Klimt, whom I was reminded of by some of Bonnard's backgrounds. Klimt, good modernist that he was, hoped to reveal some sort of deeper truth by playing with form, line, and color. In this regard he and Bonnard have much in common. However, Klimt's work is burdened by a somber vision that makes the color of his paintings seem ironic. It is full of heavy symbols and allusions to those dark places within us that we, the bourgeois consumers of art targeted by Klimt, usually prefer to repress. Bonnard's work knows no such agenda. If there are hidden meanings in the work, they are where they should be: hidden. What clues he gives us serve only to charm us, to draw our gaze and compell us to engage with his art. On the surface Bonnard wants merely to entertain, communicate, and perhaps inspire. Some (as Picasso has suggested) might say that Bonnard is too at peace with his bourgeois self. Yet Bonnard's subjectivism for subjectivism's sake, subjectivism for the thrill of the ride, yields more than simply pretty pictures. At the very least he forces us to try to understand how we see, something I think makes us all the wiser for it.

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Images: Pierre Bonnard,
The Red Checkered Tablecloth (1910)
and The Palm (1926),
Phillips Collection

Michael Shurkin is Johns Hopkins' leading intellectual historian.

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