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    the master bather
by Peter Schjeldahl
The Bathroom
Young Women in the Garden
(Renée Monchaty and Marthe Bonnard)

The Bath
Self-Portrait in a Mirror
The Provencal Jug
The Garden
Nude Crouching in the Bath
Pierre Bonnard
Standing Nude
Pierre Bonnard, June 21 - October 13, at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10019.

Pierre Bonnard is so harmless a little master that to attack his modest prestige, on the occasion of this summer-colored retrospective, demands a reason. I have one. It is that artists today are finding ways to revive painting, which history has ground down for over half a century, and none of the ways gets any useful boost from Bonnard (who died in 1947 at the age of 79). Indeed, his work epitomizes an art that is on its last legs as a culture-changing enterprise -- practically impatient to be over and done with.

There is decadence that excites and decadence that enervates. Bonnard's is the second sort: edgeless, nerveless, weird, fussy. He isn't mindless, exactly, but he withholds his mind from his transactions with painting. For thought, he substitutes maundering on autopilot. His compass is a vague tastefulness. This comforts people who dislike thinking. I submit that such people are already comfortable enough, on their own lookout, and should not be indulged.

He could really handle pigment, but he didn't quite paint with it. Rather, working on tacked-up, unstretched canvases, he plastered little walls with colored stuff. His pictures are incredibly devoid of compositional tension and tonal snap. Even his brightest infusions of eye-candy hue just sort of lie there, wishing to be admired. Compare Bonnard's colleague Edouard Vuillard, whose superior brand of genteel decadence is viscerally alert. Vuillard explores a claustrophobic but living world. Bonnard is off by himself somewhere, busy with brushes.

He is in the bathroom with Marthe de Méligny, probably. His life-long companion, besides being tubercular and/or asthmatic and/or a hypochondriac, was agoraphobic and bathed compulsively. She was always in the tub. She lied to Bonnard about her name and age when they met in 1893, as he did not learn until he married her 32 years later. He painted her at least 384 times, never with real attention to her face and invariably, even when she was 72 years old and dying, as a nubile young woman. They were childless.

Bonnard's one girlfriend identified in the show, Renée Monchaty, committed suicide the year he married Marthe. You might say that his love life lacked champagne sparkle. He was a pinched, unsmiling man who looked like a stereotypical accountant. He lived uneasily in spartan surroundings. His strongest paintings, aside from intermittent tours de force, are terrifying late self-portraits: the artist's wizened features darkened by backlighting. How does so grim a character get cast as an angel of sunlight and sensuality?

That's his reputation: one foot in the museum and the other in among glossy-magazine perfume ads. Bonnard's art is a very French product line, irresistible to some ever-francophile segments of the U.S. upper culturati. The French like to cultivate one or another bodily sense -- or, in philosophy, the disembodied brain -- to the pointed exclusion of anything else. Bonnard cuts to the chase of eyesight, which he provides with much puzzle-solving work to do. But the work is trivial.

MoMA curator John Elderfield, in the show's catalogue, imputes "revolutionary" import to the notion that painting is "not a representation of substance but a representation of the perception of substance." First, that idea could apply to no end of things. Second, so what? Does a painting's type of representation have anything crucial to do with its worth as a painting?

The answer is that it may, but only if the painting's initial effect draws us into fascinated reflection on its mental process -- and then only if the reflection takes us somewhere interesting. Think of Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian, Pollock, and de Kooning. They can get us speculating on their decisions like a kid ripping into presents on Christmas morning, and we come away with perked-up awareness of art and ourselves. Bonnard? Hardly.

One landscape in the show, The Garden (1936), and one naked Marthe, Nude Crouching in the Bath (1940), elated me. Each is daringly awkward, with disjointed parts that compete for attention and interpretation. These pictures challenge me to perceive the secrets of their coherence, because they do hang together somehow in my experience. I try and keep failing, but I don't get frustrated. Bonnard fights back! I feel that I am dealing with a passionately complicated person. What does this remind me of?

It reminds me of another little-master retrospective, the stirring one of Chaim Soutine at the Jewish Museum. Now, there was a guy who made painting seem necessary. Soutine's violent restlessness disdains all ideals of beauty, in fact. For me, there is more erotic pith to a flayed ox by Soutine than to any of Bonnard's poached womanflesh. Bonnard is a stranger to beauty. His stuff isn't even pretty. It isn't vulgar. It isn't much of anything, maybe except expensive.

Harmless, in other words. No gain, so no pain -- in the work, that is. Plenty of pain looms in the psychic vicinity, once you start imagining the existential state that the work indicates. Directly isolated, Bonnard palpably squirmed away from consciousness of his malaise. This meant not thinking. And, since drawing is thinking, it meant banishing drawing when he painted. (When he made drawings, he was a sprightly illustrator.) It meant not actually looking at anything, especially Marthe.

I think that Bonnard worked in a masturbatory trance, fixating on ritualistic fantasy images and visual sensations that, by some associative route, aroused him. The scene is peacefully domestic, but the mood is desperately surreal. In her catalogue essay, Tate Gallery curator Sarah Whitfield relates Bonnard to Proust. The comparison is good, but only on a level of parody. Bonnard was a Proustian so far gone in remembrance that he was as likely to stick a madeleine up his nose as nibble it.

A quote from Bonnard occupies this show's last wall: "There is a formula, which fits painting perfectly, many little lies create a great truth." Wrong. In painting that works, many little truths create a great mystery. Liars need not apply, because they do not provide the basis of trust on which our souls -- in art's great payoff moments -- can merge with theirs. I simply can't imagine a heartfelt way of digging Bonnard that is not titillated or pitying. I want better things, which thank goodness are not in short supply.

PETER SCHJELDAHL is art critic for the Village Voice, where this article first appeared.