Thursday 21 September 2017

L'Homme et la Femme by Pierre Bonnard (1867 - 1947)

In the Musee Bonnard in the hills above Cannes this painting has been on show since last July, one of many paintings celebrating the nude. The naked figure has featured in art especially since the 14th Century and Pierre Bonnard's nudes are among the finest.

Adam and Eve, of course, were the first nudes and they were taken aback when they discovered that they were naked. And this realisation, this guilt-ridden state was a punishment. Why would God want to keep people in the dark? Why would any supposed father-figure not want his children to grow in knowledge? Go figure.

This image, painted in 1900, is of Pierre Bonnard and his partner, whom he met in Montmartre in 1893. She had severed connections with her family, was a shy, withdrawn woman, a reluctant artist's model and she told Bonnard that her name was Marthe.

It was on their wedding day that he discovered his wife's real name was Maria. They were together for more than 40 years.

Though a self-portrait of him and her in their sensuous, red bedroom, Bonnard gives it the more universal, impersonal title The Man And The Woman. It is every man, every woman and suggests that the couple has just known intimacy. And yet, in this instance, the man and woman are physically separate and a [phallic?] screen standing tall serves as a severe, dramatic divide. It dissects them and the bed where they make love.

On the left, Maria, eyes cast down, is kneeling on crumpled, beautiful bedclothes and plays with her two young cats; on the right, tall, thin Bonnard is getting dressed.

The female nude is soft, thoughtful not kittenish; the male is standing, strong, angular. Subtly, delicately and warmly lit from the left, the atmosphere is nonetheless sad.

Man and woman make love but the French don't call that most heightened, private, pleasurable of moments "la petite mort" for nothing.

Neither looks at the other. Their thoughts and feelings are locked within themselves. Bonnard believed that "the artist who paints the emotions creates an enclosed world". And the mirror frame, on the left, means the painting is a reflection. It reflects a couple together and apart.

Sunday Independent

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