An Afternoon with Bonnard

Experiences of the sublime remain too elusive. Much of our lives – be it love, religion, art, whatever – are grounded on the most intangible, and thus the most powerful, moments. And unfortunately, try as we might, these moments simply can’t be made, and even come at times and from places unexpected.

I spent the summer of 2007 living in Paris. This was an incredible opportunity to spend in such a remarkable city. As a student, I loved Parisian Modernism and the art of the Left Bank – James Joyce, Joan Miro, H.D., Gertrude Stein, Jean Arp, etc… A summer in Paris was not only a great opportunity to pursue my work in the city, but a chance to get more acquainted with so much art that has meant so much to me for so many years.

One afternoon, after spending a day in my studio, I got tired of my four walls, and walked down to the Pompidou Center. I was living in the Marais, and was a short walk from the Pompidou. Thus situated, I went often. The Pompidou Center has such a rich archive in Parisian Modernism, and I would frequently go and just spend an hour with a gallery of Brassai’s work, or Dubuffet, Miro and Arp.

On this particular day, I found myself in a corner of a gallery with just a few paintings by Pierre Bonnard tucked away. I loved his paintings for some time, but chances to really see his work have been all too infrequent for me. I settled down to really engage these paintings, perhaps still in a heightened visual state, a concentrated state from a day in the studio.

There were only three Bonnard’s in the gallery, and it was really just one that captured my attention. It was a famous painting of his, a self-portrait in the bathroom mirror. This has long been one of my favorite images from his work, though until this day I had never seen it in person. Composed with the typically colors of a good Bonnard – full of yellows and reds and rich light – all the things typically found in the bathroom were in the foreground of the mirror. In the painting, Bonnard is just head and shoulders, and his head is set off from the rest of the painting by a darker palette of color.

Looking closer, I began to feel the painting in an entirely new way that caught me off guard. I stood close to the painting and really patiently investigated the whole surface. I looked at the layering of colors – the mixing and transparency – and the brush strokes, the nuance of each shape and gesture.

I started to get beyond the mechanics of the painting, and was quickly overwhelmed by the emotional complexity of the portrait, specifically how this was rendered with a brush. I was touched with grief, longing, and emptiness, in a way that struck me at my core. My emotions came in rush that felt both like an incredible connection with and understanding of Bonnard. I was also quite confused, as this powerful rush of emotions came forth some quickly, even unannounced, and I felt somewhat trapped by the chaos and motion of the museum full of summer crowds. My emptiness and longing was tangible, and thus rendered me so vulnerable in a crowd. I tried to maintain all of my focus on the painting, continuing to look at each nuance of the material. In doing so, my connection with the painter and my rush of emotions only heightened.

As I continued with the painting, more and more my empathy with it felt like an epiphany. I understood the manifestation of grief and longing in a physical, tangible form. Indeed, seeing such elusive and intangible feelings rendered so physical, so full of meaning and sensitivity, so became a rush of beauty, almost intoxicating.

I was reminded that this is precisely what art is about, the opportunity and ability to depict life its most fundamental and abstract form. I walked away from the painting and back to my studio, feeling elated, confused, shaken, and inspired, knowing that all I felt can indeed be manifest. Such a simple value, perhaps even naïve to state it, though at the time felt too essential to be forgotten.

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