At Musée d’Orsay Pierre Bonnard and Marthe fall in love again with a bathtub called abstraction

Stefano Pirovano

Most of the times, and especially when dedicated to painting, retrospective exhibitions are not just a way to re-enact the visual world created by a certain master during his professional career. Along with the painted world, also the characters who played a role in the artist’s life start to live again and influence our reading of the artworks they once inspired.

This is the case of the exhibition currently at the Musée d’Orsay and of Pierre Bonnard’s tragic muse Marthe de Méligny’s phantom who, 73 years after her death, is still enlightening the extraordinary successful post mortem career of her not always devoted husband. But since this show is representative of the entire artist’s excursus – including his brilliant use of the camera –, Marthe turns out to be a lot more than a life companion, a beautiful icon of modern beauty, and a sophisticated woman with that hint of insanity that sometimes is necessary to make good paintings become everlasting masterpieces.

The matters this love story is made of are colourful and elusive like the best of Bonnard’s painting, but its essence is pretty well known. Marthe and Pierre first met in a street of Paris in 1893, two years after the artist’s first successful participation at the Salon des Indépendants. The girl told Pierre that she was 16 years old when, in fact, she was already 24 at that time. She also lied about her name, which was Maria Boursin, probably too unfashionable for a man belonging to a social class higher than her poor family’s – her father was a carpenter from Bourges. But eight years was a rather considerable amount of time to lie about also for a woman at the end of the 19th century, especially in the eye of an educated emerging painter accustomed to sensitive artists such as Maurice Denis, Vuillard and the actor Lugné-Poe. Consciously Pierre didn’t care about the girl’s innocent lies.

They lived together, reserved and with no excess, apparently just developing the strong sensuality that would have characterized the images painted by the former Nabis -as well as admirer of Gauguin’s flat painting- during the early years of their relationship. L’indolent (1898-1899) – an intense image picturing Marthe generously offering her nudity to the painter’s eye in a pose that could be a bourgeois tribute to Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde – is probably the apex of this very productive period. Three years later Bonnard took a series of hypnotic photos of his muse, naked and acting like classic bucolic divinity. These small and precise images (the opposite of Bonnard’s paintings) are at the same time a logical consequence and a conceptual extension of that vision. They effectively served as studies for later paintings, and for the lithographs Bonnard made to the edition of Daphnis et Chloé published by Amroise Vollard in 1902.

Marthe remained an ideal beauty, thus a perfect body with an undefined face, even when she started to slip into psychological obsession and mental disorders. She liked solitude, she was flirting with hypochondria, and apparently the bathtub was her favourite refugee, in some ways protecting her and her husband’s intimacy, as the many paintings dedicated to this subject seem to prove. Pierre is always part of the scene, personally involved as a sort of magnetic presence, sometimes focusing on himself and his feelings more than on the scene in front of him. After all he was an abstract painter, faithful to his own memory, or the one allowed by his camera.

What they may have talked about during these apparently short-sessions is not known, and the letters Bonnard exchanged with his friend Matisse don’t seem to convey any further information about the private life of this crucial couple from art history. In 1930, four years after they had bought a house in the south of France, Pierre wrote to a friend: “For quite some time now I have been living a very secluded life as Marthe has become completely anti-social and I am obliged to avoid all contact with other people”. Twelve years later, when Marthe died of cardiac arrest, Pierre was left alone. Then he started to paint landscapes, but no extraordinary experience was serving them except that generated once by Marthe. That is the essence of abstraction: certain painters aren’t able to illustrate anything but the information generated by their own life and thinking.

February 21, 2018