A Sky filled with Shooting Stars concerns itself primarily with New York’s contemporary art scene but, as any fool knows, without an appreciation of art’s histories, any sense of contemporary significance is going to be entirely unhinged. Imagine my recent conversation with Larry Poons if he hadn’t been able to refer to Mondrian, or last week’s conversation with Ken Snelson if I hadn’t understood his references to Cézanne and cubism. So with this in mind I offer this advice: whatever else you do between now and April 19, do not miss the current Metropolitan Museum show, “Pierre Bonnard: The Late Interiors”.
At first sight, Bonnard’s late pictures seem unlikely candidates for contemporary relevance. Their subject matter is so comfortably domestic and so relentlessly middle-class that they evoke a world very like the one that many of us became artists to escape. Tables are laid for family meals in ornately decorated rooms; Marthe Bonnard and an occasional house guest busy themselves with their chores or stroke one of the dogs and cats that pad around the place; and beyond the French windows well-cared-for gardens stretch into the distance. In a painting like Before Dinner (1924) there is even the suggestion of late-afternoon tedium.
But, regardless of the appearances of Bonnard’s lifestyle, this is an exhibit of quite stunning painting, made all the more engaging by its perennial awkwardness. Rarely does Bonnard approach the sublime simplicity of his contemporary Matisse, with his flat color, his skeletal drawing, and that light airy space that he conjured so easily. Bonnard approaches such grace only rarely in this show, in paintings like Villa Bosquet, Le Cannet, Morning (c. 1945).
Far more typical is his Bouquet of Mimosas (1945) where he dabs and putters over the painted surface, worrying it like one of his dogs might a grubby toy, and if the finished picture is the accretion of individual attempts to make a painted translation of what he sees, it also suggests the nubby surface of one of those carpets or throws that seem to fill the rooms of his houses. Curiously, it is precisely this that renders Bonnard so accessible in this exhibition. Whereas Matisse breathes the thinner atmosphere of true genius, Bonnard seems like one of us: when I visited the show today I overheard two genuinely delighted ladies exclaim “We could do these!” in front of one picture, while elsewhere an old gentleman told his wife “I don’t think he cared about technique at all.” His tone was rather awe-struck.
None of this is to say that Bonnard was anything less than a wonderful and utterly modern painter. As a picture like Basket of Fruit: Oranges and Persimmons (c. 1940) makes obvious, his colorism – particular in that segment of the spectrum where reds become flaming ochers, but also in their bluish-green complementaries – is often intoxicating; figures often flicker around and across his pictures’ surfaces as though caught inadequately by a long-exposure photograph; and time and again he’ll carefully paint in the striped pattern of a table cloth to cheerfully upend any sense that it is possible for those objects to actually sit upon it.
In one remarkable picture, Dining Room Overlooking the Garden (1930-31), it is as though the French windows afford a view not of a garden, but of an entirely different kind of painting to that describing the inside of the room.
Best of all in the Met’s show is the little banana-yellow chamber behind the painting called White Interior (1932). This is where the organizers have hung the drawings, watercolors, and gouaches, and displayed Bonnard’s wonderful little pocket diaries. It’s worth the Met’s admission charge just for these. On a page about six inches high, Bonnard scribbles next to the date Friday, February 6  that it’s rainy and cold, and adds a little drawing of a woman on an ornate couch patting a dog, then below that – in an implied middle ground – a few repeated strokes describe a plate of fruit, and underneath that, on the section of the page intended for Saturday, February 7, he draws a couple of chickens, and adds the notation “cloudy” and the tantalizing words “geometric forms”. This as near as we can get to seeing artistic invention at work.
Across the room is another wonder, a little picture in pencil, watercolor, and gouache called Basket of Fruit (1930). The white here is actually the bare white of the paper surface, and the fruit in the basket is brought into existence in a marvelous interplay between the watercolor’s transparency and the thick opacity of the gouache. The basket’s twisted handle – drawn in wiry pencil line and then filled out with transparent smears of ocher and grey watercolor and little flecks of black, and then echoed in its blue-grey shadows – is the subject of some of the best, most spontaneous painting you’ll see anywhere in the city just presently. Bonnard, clearly, could do lightness of touch when it suited him.
One word of practical advice. If you can manage it, see this show at around midday on a bright sunny day. It’s hung in those sepulchral dark rooms near the main cafeteria in the Met’s Robert Lehman Wing. Go on a dark day (as I did on my first visit a couple of weeks back) and you’ll find most of the paintings almost impossible to see properly. But when the sun shines directly into the adjacent atrium just enough reflected light spills into the exhibition itself to suggest the sort of light in which Bonnard actually made most of these pictures. Then I trust you will enjoy this show as much as I did today.