July 7, 2014

What If.....?

Pierre Bonnard, Bather, 1935. Image courtesy WikiArt

I remember being stunned by Bonnard's late paintings in the 1998 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. The color was brilliant and shimmering, and of a peculiar intensity; it was from this world but pushed beyond it, past the everyday.

Pierre Bonnard, Nude in the Bathtub, 1935. Image courtesy WikiArt

The paintings of bathers were especially compelling, along with the late self portraits. The woman in the bathtub seemed to hover between life and death. The woman pictured was always Marthe, Bonnard's wife and long time partner and muse. In his book of essays, The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa, Michael Kimmelman suggests that Bonnard's noticing of Marthe on a Paris street may have profoundly influenced his life and his work:
By one of those accidents of fate, in 1893 the painter Pierre Bonnard was walking down a street in Paris (or so the story goes) and he spied a young, elfin woman alighting from a tram....He followed her to work (it turned out that she sewed artificial pearls onto funeral wreaths). 
For the next half century, as Bonnard's biographer, Timothy Hyman, has put it, Marthe became "the defining figure of his life and work". Her increasing nervousness, her misanthropy, her jealousy and hypochondria conspired to determine what became their solitary and circumscribed life together. And that life, in turn, shaped Bonnard's path as an artist of ecstatic and inward-looking vision. 
Of course Kimmelman points out that no art is defined by any one thing, but he does believe that Bonnard's meeting with Marthe, and their life together, was a strong influence on his painting:
...[Bonnard] dated the birth of his painterly identity to shortly after they met. Had he walked down another street that day, or had he looked the other way when she stepped off the tram, or had he not pursued her....he might have met another woman and pursued a different life.

Philip Pearlstein, Female Nude on Yellow Drape, 1965. Image courtesy Betty Cunningham Gallery.

Lois Dodd, Wild Geraniums, 1967. Image courtesy NY Times.

I'm a Brooklyn kid, so when it came time to go to college, Brooklyn College seemed the logical choice. There I studied with Philip Pearlstein and Lois Dodd, among others; it was there that my path as a representational painter was laid out. But what if I'd gotten on the subway into Manhattan and gone to Hunter College instead, along with a good neighborhood friend of mine?

Robert Morris, Untitled, 1967-8, remade 2008. Image courtesy Tate Gallery.

Tony Smith, Untitled, 1962. Image courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery.

The emphasis at Hunter was on abstraction, with the faculty including Robert Morris, Tony Smith, Ralph Humphrey, Ron Gorchov. I believe I would have been a very different painter, one with the same sensibility, but a very different style. Instead of a late, slow turn toward abstraction, I might have begun there. Who knows? It's fun to think how a single choice or action could have changed our lives. The singer John Hartford wrote a very funny song about the role of chance, which you can hear at the link: "I Would Not Be Here" ..."if I hadn't been there"....which goes on and on and on, back and back.....because of this and that and that and that; it becomes absurd. So perhaps it's best not to think about it. 


  1. Bonnard is one of my favorites, too. My daughter, Sheryl Humphrey, also studied, I think, with Philip Pearlstein and Lois Dodd when she was at Brooklyn College. Her class with Pearlstein was art history, however. I like your last paragraph here about how single choices or actions may change lives. I plan to listen today to "I Would Not Be Here." Thank you, Altoon, for your wonderful, insightful blog and for sharing such magnificent photographs with your Facebook friends. --Mitzi H.

  2. I share Mitzi's love of Bonnard and praise for your generous blog posts. This one so interesting because I believe we all share these questions. One of the most surprising and memorable Bonnard's I have ever seen is his Abduction of Europa at the Toledo Art Museum. The museum itself is worth a trip, a fascinating collection with unique pieces. In addition, admission is free which provides a valuable community service. The viewing rooms hold comfy chairs which you can move around and put in front of any art to contemplate as if from a throne.

    1. Thanks, Julie. The Toledo Art Museum sounds like a heavenly place.