I first saw Bonnard’s Large Yellow Nude at MOMA in 1998, and was immediately struck by what an exceedingly weird painting it is. It effectively has no paint on it–just washes of paint, scumbles and scribbles, and a few dark brown clots on its lower portion. The only really thick paint on it is those brown clots. Artist and critic Robert Berlind, whose penetrating observation about it I heard years later, gave me the key to understanding its ground-breaking power.
Its subject is Marthe de Meligny whom Bonnard met on the street and followed to her home. She told him she was 16, and he didn’t find out until 32 years later, when he finally decided to marry her, that she was actually 24 when they met, and that her real name was Marie Boursin. She sewed pearls on funeral clothes and saw in Bonnard a chance to escape her dull, bourgeious life. Both of them were introverted people, wary of being conspicuous. Described as “tall, thin, slightly stooping with hands that people noticed were large and often bluish-red”, he struck people as a man who never looked at ease. Once, before boarding a ship for a transatlantic trip he shaved his beard in order to look like the other passengers. Marthe also didn’t like to be looked at. When she and Bonnard went for a walk, Bonnard would take an umbrella with him, not to shield her from the sun but from the gaze of other people. Eventually they receded from society; Marthe developed a skin condition that obliged her to spend many hours in the bath and effectively removed herself from life. The irony is that, while Bonnard couldn’t penetrate her person, in his paintings he was able to delve deeply into her, in the interpenetrating nature of the forms he painted.
The composition of Large Yellow Nude is complicated by the ambiguous object in front of the nude figure of Marthe emerging from her bath and engaged in intimate rituals of her toilette. What one might take for a midground object, described by David Sylvester as a “red and white sheet – a pyrotechnical tour de force”, thrown over a chair, is actually, on closer inspection, not a sheet in the middle ground at all but a foreground object. If you look closely you can see inchoate thumbs and scribbled knuckles that are holding some obscurely drawn, scribbley thing. Suddenly we realize that those thumbs and knuckles function pictorially as our own, since now it is our body that occupies the space outside the canvas frame. We become Bonnard looking at his wife, as we assume that foreground stance, and he is (we are) holding something – is it a newspaper, a magazine?
If we look closer and think about Bonnard’s psychic dilemma, trying to know more intimately this woman he is living with everyday, who is always beyond his conceptual and experiential grasp, we imagine the situation differently than we might otherwise. We see a man who has stumbled on his wife engaged in her intimate rituals: she doesn’t like to be looked at so he hides from her, but he sees something on the floor that is discarded. He picks it up, hoping to find in it a clue to her deep otherness through its totemic nature. It is her menstrual rag that she has left on the floor, with its scribbles of red and clots of dried blood.
Most young girls experience the onset of menses as a time fraught with shame and secrecy – she sees some spots of red on her underwear, tells her mother and is taken into the bathroom where her mother, in hushed tones, explains how to deal with the blood, how to wrap it in tissue and secrete it away in the bottom of the garbage can, lest anyone see it. But Bonnard, by casting this taboo object in the foreground, in our space, so it’s as though we ourselves are holding it, he makes it ordinary, taking away the shame. With Bonnard’s nuance, with his ability to show the interrelatedness of things, such an object becomes yet another thing to approach with curiosity and a certain reverence – not so unlike the bowls of milk he paints in other paintings, or those impertinent dogs. What is different with Bonnard is that nothing is off limits to one who sees with no distinctions between chairs and fireplaces and radiators and a woman crouching. They are all part of the eternal swoop of sensations – particles of light in constant flux and shimmer.
Julie Heffernan, Self Portrait Dressing Wounds, 2012, Oil on canvas, 67 x 70 inches