Andrew Graham-Dixon Art critic, journalist, TV presenter, author, lecturer and educationalist.
Andrew Graham-Dixon Art critic, journalist, TV presenter, author, lecturer and educationalist.
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ITP 175: The Open Window by Pierre Bonnard

Date: 24-08-2003
Owning Institution: The Phillips Collection
Publication: Sunday Telegraph "In The Picture"
Subject: 20th Century

The fourth of this month’s summer pictures is The Open Window, by Pierre Bonnard. Created in 1921, the work was inspired by the view from the sitting room of “Ma Roulotte”, the painter’s house at Vernonnet, in the Seine Valley. The mood of the summer afternoon siesta, languorous and indolent, is dreamily evoked. Bonnard uses his palette almost as if it were a narcotic substance, saturating his canvas with hues of orange, blue, indigo and violet that seem to pulse and vibrate on the retina. A becalmed room and the view to a radiant outdoors have been reformed as a tapestry of colour.

Familiar objects are recognisable, but transfigured. An expanse of striped wallpaper shifts and moves like a coloured mist; a patch of sunlit foliage catches fire. Colour has been set free by the artist from straightforward description, heightened and intensified. Yet the result seems neither exaggerated, nor abstracted from reality, but all the more true to life. This is the kind of summer’s day when the sun’s warmth seems to irradiate everything, even the world of indoors, with its steady glow.

Bonnard has been labelled an “Intimist”, on account of his preference for depicting intimate scenes of everyday life. As the critic Claude Roger-Marx remarked in 1893, right at the start of the artist’s career, he “catches fleeting poses, steals unconscious gestures, crystallises the most transient expressions”. In The Open Window, the painter uses both composition and colour to convey an effect of such extreme transience that it might barely register on the consciousness in normal, everyday life. The picture seems to recreate the experience of walking into a room after having just been outdoors on a hot day, eyes still dazzled by the sun’s glare, and gradually adjusting to the difference in light. The view to outside, with flowering trees against the silhouette of what seems to be a far-off hill or mountain and a sky of blue tinged by violet, is relatively sharp and bright. But indoors things are still a little hard to make out. It takes time to notice the vase of flowers, the sleeping face of a female figure (who is Maria Boursin, or “Marthe” as she was known, the painter’s long-time model and lover) and the silhouette of the black cat, or perhaps kitten, by her side. The painter has disguised them by turning them into shapes cunningly woven into the fabric of his picture. They are half-hidden, almost as in a puzzle, for us to discover. The cat is a feline blur, painted in the same range of blacks that describe the semi-pulled blind that truncates the view to outside. Marthe’s face and hair merge into the room’s décor, having been painted in the same colours as the wall and the swathe of diaphanous curtain pressed back by the open casement of the window. Bonnard’s methods are highly artificial, almost a form of camouflage (people do not have red faces, after all), yet the overall effect is totally believable. What might merely have seemed strange sparks recognition.

Bonnard has not always been taken entirely seriously. His strongest critics have damned him as an empty hedonist, painting merely decorative pictures of the petit-bourgeois good life. This ignores the speculative, philosophical strain that runs through so much of his work. Bonnard explored new ways to depict pleasurably fugitive sensations, but he also developed a way of painting that raises all sorts of questions about how the human eye sees the world. Bonnard’s own catch-all phrase for his art was “the adventures of the optic nerve”, and one of the most surprising things about it is the way in which he seems to paint what the eye might see if it could somehow be released from the control of the intellect. The picture shown here is a good example. Near and far have been telescoped so that the view through the window and the glimpsed details of the room appear to exist on a single, continuous plane of vision. Spatial perception has been suppressed in favour of an almost pure awareness of the world as light and colour. Blind people who recover their sight, or gain it for the first time after a life in darkness, have sometimes spoken of vision as if it were rather like this. Unable to distinguish space or gauge distance, because their brains have never learned to process visual information, they have described colour almost as a physical weight pressing on them – so that, for example, a far-off patch of sky can seem, alarmingly, almost to pierce the retina.

Bonnard does not take us quite that far towards “untutored”, innocent sight. But he does make us think twice about what we see and how it relates to what is actually “there”, in the world beyond us. He possibly included the blissfully sleeping figure of Marthe as part of this, a way of lightly suggesting the extent to which all our perceptions are a kind of waking dream. The cat may be there for a similar reason, to represent the fact that not only each individual, but each creature, sees the world differently (in one of his notebooks Bonnard specified “states of daydreaming, like a cat”, as one of the subjects he would like to explore). And I wonder if the theme of the open window attracted him in the first place because it is such a powerful metaphor for the play between that which lies without, and what we bring to it from within – for the fact, in other words, that vision is always coloured by feeling.

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