Pierre Bonnard, The Terrace at Vernonnet, 1939, Oil on canvas; 58 1/4 x 76 3/4 inches
This is the second section of an essay first published in ArtPulse Magazine Vol. 7 in 2015 under the title ‘Bonnard’s Other Avant Garde.
Bonnard had an approach to the figure that mirrored his and wife Marthe’s reclusive natures: he famously shaved his moustache when he went on a cruise, “to look like other passengers”4 His figures disappear into their worlds, as though their relative importance to any situation were up for grabs. Vuillard’s bourgeois figures blend into their domestic realms; they’re part of the furniture like Betty Draper in Mad Men. But Bonnard’s are caught up in a game of hide-and-seek; they literally sneak up on you, from behind a tree or bush. Similarly many of Dufresne’s figures belong more to the atmosphere that permeates her worlds than they do to themselves: they emerge from tiny glowing TV sets, as in Me In the TV And On the Couch (2007), or fade into a fog of air, as in Strangers When We Met Gay Bar (2010), fully aware that they are bit players in coruscating worlds, where light, the energy of metal music and quicksilver flashes of paint constitute the main event.
Nature looms large in a world where the human is diminished. The town of Le Cannet, Bonnard’s refuge from the suffocation of the city, became his muse as much as Marthe. In a painting like The Palm, he suffuses the central figure with the same color of blue as the air above the red roofs, literally turning her into the stuff of atmosphere, allowing the large palm frond above her and the rectangles of reddish-orange behind her to come forward and clash and clang like cymbals. She is in effect a hole in the painting, similar to the fetid lake in Sanditz’s Underwear City (2008), which bodies forth through mountains and the ooze of contaminated land, forming a toxic maw that both sucks us in and advances towards us menacingly. Sanditz’s muse, if she has one, would have to be the dying landscape itself, a place where human beings have disappeared and the detritus of hyper-consumerism is all that’s left.
Lisa Sanditz, Underwear City, 2008, Oil on canvas, 68 x 87 inches
I see shades of the same suffocation in the garden party of Bonnard’s Terrace at Vernonnet (1939) and in Dufresne’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Delusional Dinner Party for Big Daddy (2007). Bonnard’s painting divides the space into a weirdly shaped grid to emphasize the stifling nature of that social situation. The grid subsumes the scene into a tight little cluster of wonky shapes, like a bunch of deflating party balloons squashed and stacked on top of each other. Such sick geometry effectively annuls any flow of vital energy among the sectors of that little bourgeois backyard. Everything is neatly compartmentalized, like partitions in a picnic basket whose food is rotting. In her garden party painting, Dufresne presents us with what might superficially seem like a perfectly charming outdoor gathering, like Bonnard’s, here accompanied by Chinese lanterns and a yellow glow suffusing the air with warm light. She then subverts that mood with excessive glazing and transparent veils of paint splashed about that break up any internal coherence and suggest something sinister at play. She describes particulars of the narrative and its composition not through rendering but through bold strokes of paint that are applied and then partially wiped away. The image is attacked as an integral way of telling the story.
Dufresne creates an ethereal light that she then undoes with those glazes and erasures, framing certain areas for focus, such as Big Daddy in the middle of the table. This grid of negative space and positive shapes clarifies some figures and obscures others: a phantasmagoria of perpetrators and victims. Some figures stand out and others are subsumed into the veils of dripping, frantic paint, but all look to be drowning in the penetrating goo of toxic color, as though the very poison in the pigments that painters use is contributing to the character’s suffocation. Only the paper lanterns are left behind as witnesses.
Kyle Coniglio is a young artist very much influenced by Bonnard and Dufresne, and his work evinces a similar interest in illicit characters that dematerialize in climates of thick air. In Me and the Beasts (2010) Coniglio paints himself surrounded by a variety of beasts — bears, wolves, otters — all permeated by a melancholic turquoise glow that suggests subterranean malaise, both heartbreaking and comic. This is a demi-monde for les enfants sauvages, to prance and cavort in their bestial play.
Bonnard insinuates his fascination with the bathetic and illicit in subtle, sometimes barely perceptible ways–-he was too well-mannered to do otherwise. Yet manners don’t concern contemporary painters, who often lay bare sexuality of the kind seen in Large Yellow Nude without hesitation. What is harder to find in our times are sincere expressions of that experience. Doron Langberg and Nicole Eisenman risk it in ways that manage to be both daring and subtle, as their revelation of secrets is slow and often accompanied by a frisson of discovery.
Doron Langberg, On All Fours #2, 2012, Oil on linen, 68 x 44 inches
Hiding the figure in the stuff of negative space– transposing figure/ground relationships– occurs in Doron Langberg’s On All Fours (2012) and Nicole Eisenman’s Study for Winter Solstice Dinner Party (2009), to reveal something unexpected and stirring. Like the disappearing figures in The Boxer and The Palm, we see Langberg’s bestial figure first as only a red veil of atmospheric space. Then we notice the clotted clumps of thick paint doing something very specific: they are surrounding a shape. All of a sudden those clumps become the space while the red glaze becomes a positive shape: a figure crawling towards us. That transparent red glaze will forever oscillate now between space and shape, now positive, now negative, as the figure dematerializes into a red glowing light, and rematerializes into the raw, sensual zone of illicit sex. A similar oscillation occurs in Eisenman’s Study for Winter Solstice Dinner Party. Around a white dinner table, dark and abject figures lounge or sleep. But as the eye moves back in space, ground gives way to figure and the negative space of the white table suddenly becomes positive, as with Langberg’s figure, revealing it now as a female torso, splayed out, corpse-like. Its head aligns vertically with two candles (one functioning as the woman’s solar plexus and one as the crotch). Eisenman offers us here a vision of a sacrificial body, with the poor and miserable dining on her, like a veritable Mater Amata Intemerata, but spotless no longer.
Nicole Eisenman, Winter Solstice 2012 Dinner Party, 2009, Oil on canvas, 56 x 44 inches
It’s worth recalling that one reason a certain kind of avant-garde art, predicated on shock, worked so effectively on unwitting viewers in the early 20th century and made headway in the culture was because of the unique way that its novel stylistic forms and unconventional ideas complicated the act of viewing. A viewer weaned on expectations of pleasure and realism in her art consumption was suddenly thrown into a state of uncertainty –what Breton described as “convulsive”– when faced with her first upside-down urinal or fur-lined teacup. With the accompanying adrenaline rush from that supercharged surprise, she experienced a kind of euphoria as her mind worked hard to make sense of those new experiences, unmoored from the determining nature of bourgeois certitudes. Such movement, from certainty to doubt and then acceptance, created a unique kind of excitement. As Jed Perl says in his review of Jeff Koons’ show at the Whitney Museum, “From the first supporters of the Cubists to the critics and collectors who embraced Abstract Expressionism early on, the bewilderment one sometimes experienced on encountering new art was embraced as a complicated intellectual challenge, demanding new alignments of sense and sensibility.”5 But decades of challenging art predicated on shock (amply described by Robert Hughes in The Shock of the New) with Freudian undertones (analyzed by Hal Foster in Compulsive Beauty) may have limited our understanding of what constitutes greatness in art. What shocks us today becomes habitual—even disparaged– tomorrow. Revelatory experience is qualitatively different in its effect on us from shock, and isn’t undone by habituation. The slow revelation of a Bonnard painting is similar to the sharing of secrets; it increases awareness, and forges intimacy and connectedness.
In the lineage of Courbet, Bonnard reclaimed realism for a 20th century avant-garde public. The 19th century’s breakdown of faith in form, most noticeably its faith in academic Realism to conjure truth and verisimilitude, was for Bonnard an opportunity to move beyond the representation of surfaces and the aesthetics of design evident in his early work, to delve into more truthful depictions of lived human experience: its clandestine underside. Bonnard’s Large Yellow Nude gave me my first mature experience of avant-garde shock as a pathway to truth because of its revelatory suggestiveness and timing – how long it takes the viewer to fully comprehend its secrets. Bonnard traffics in slow takes, psychological nuance and subtle hints of illicit subject matter that reveal themselves gradually. The main event of a Bonnard painting is almost always barely visible, involving a figure or everyday object that has been deformed in such a way that you cease to recognize it as itself. While that elicited for me the revelatory thrill I equate with avant-garde art, it is not deployed merely to shock, but to reveal something deeper, maybe even shameful at times, about our humanity. What begins in Large Yellow Nude as an apparently simple scene of a woman at her toilette ends with a distinct revelatory thrill– a barely identifiable object, on closer scrutiny, becomes a menstrual rag. Where Cubism or Expressionism bludgeon with harsh striations and wild color, Bonnard whispers. And I am floored.
Many contemporary painters describe Bonnard as important to their development as artists. But Bonnard is no easy reach. The challenge he sets for all narrative painters is formidable: how to use both understatement and wild speculation to tell a bold story well; how to say something about our humanity that is both piercing and poignant, without mockery; how to play out the slow revelation with perfect timing, implicating the viewer in the ramifications of each and every mark made. These are not small tasks.
Many artists I know are looking for imagery that engages more with the local than ever before, with the flawed nature of human kind and a clear critique of human exceptionalism. They seek imagery that depicts formally and conceptually how and why we humans are losing the big game. As Bonnard’s world shrank when he left Paris and moved to Le Cannet in 1910 during the height of Cubism and its many stylistic offshoots; as Marthe crawled into her bathtub and gave herself over to the spangle of light reflecting off tiles, becoming all at once a vision of intrauterine plenitude and a speck of flesh within a kaleidoscope of light and color, many of us are oscillating between the hugeness of our growing global awareness of environmental destruction and, at the same time, keeping bees on our roofs and planting milkweed to attract the disappearing butterfly. As the promises of Modernism fade more and more — all its grand visions and myths of progress essentially trumped by the environmental devastation left in its wake, signaling the failure of the Anthropocene — we need to find imagery to describe that growing self-consciousness, and humility, in the face of our failures. We are witnessing movements all around us, in philosophy, in quantum physics and critical theory that decenter the human from the main field of action. No tragedy is implied here, only a recognition that there is so much more to see, so much else to notice if we humans, like Bonnard, just move a bit out of the way.
Julie Heffernan, Feast of Fools, 2017, Oil on canvas, 68 x 66 inches
4. Thadee Natanson, Le Bonnard que je propose, Geneva, 1951, p.88
5. Jed Perl, “The Cult of Jeff Koons,” The New York Review of Books, Sept. 25, 2014
Julie Heffernan is a Professor of Fine Arts at Montclair State University and represented by PPOW in New York City and Catharine Clark in San Francisco, CA. She is the recipient of numerous grants and awards including a National Endowment for the Arts and Fullbright Fellowship. Her work is in the collections of the Brooklyn Museum and VMFA, among others.