Apr 14, 2009

Mystery and Color

A little off-topic, I know, but one of the highlights of my Easter weekend was a visit to the Met's Bonnard exhibit (rush to see it; it closes Apr. 19). Like many of us, I suspect, my eyes are a little numb to the charms of early 20th-century French painters working in domestic themes, in a style that looks at first glance sorta-kinda impressionist; it's a look ruined by overexposure on a jillion prints and posters. And that was my initial reaction to this showing of Bonnard's late interiors: great, a bowl of fruit in really bright colors; nice curtains; zzzzz.

Then I caught the above painting, "The White Tablecloth," and was transfixed by the shaded figure in the bottom left of the frame, who doesn't seem to be in the same room, or even the same painting. And I started to notice a lot more of such out-of-place details, signifiers of inchoate longings and missing spaces and lost time, in all his paintings, even those that seemed simplest and most documentary ("The Cherries," for example). In the face of this yearning, uncertain, even depressive quality, which can take a second tour around the exhibit to feel, the obsessive sensual pleasure of Bonnard's extreme colors begins to acquire an emotional weight, even a drama.

I spent a lot of time with "The White Tablecloth," in short--the prints I've seen, and the reproduction above, don't begin to do justice to its curious sense of lived-in space--and got more and more stirred by it, in just the same way I'm stirred and silenced in the actual presence of any powerful piece of art that can reach across centuries and communicate with immediacy. And even if the essence of that communication is a deep, saddening ambivalence, as it seems to be here, the inherently conjoined act of communicating and receiving is heartening in itself. Not a bad reminder, at least for me, why we bother with art at all.

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