Exhibition Review

Matisse and Bonnard. Frankfurt

THE THEME OF Matisse Bonnard: “Long Live Painting!” at the Städel Museum, Frankfurt (to 14th January), is the friendship between two artists who at first glance had little in common other than the mutual belief in painting indicated in the exhibition’s title.1 Born within a few years of each other, their friendship survived not only several decades but the difference in their fortunes. Matisse’s reputation was greatly enhanced by a steady market for his work in America. By 1927 he had become the most expensive living painter and in 1931 was the first foreign artist to be given a retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Bonnard, on the other hand, although well-known from early in his career, appealed mainly to French and Swiss collectors more comfortable in the world of Monet and Renoir than in that of Picasso and Braque. In other words, Matisse collectors were seen as champions of the modern (the Baltimore sisters Claribel and Etta Cone, for example, or Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo) while Bonnard’s patrons, such as the Swiss couple Arthur and Hedy Hahnloser-Bühler played a safer game. Bonnard also played it safe by remaining under contract to Galerie Bernheim-Jeune from 1904 to 1940, while Matisse, who was under contract to the same gallery from 1909, parted company with them in 1926. Bonnard’s appeal to a conservative faction, such as the ‘Jeunes peintres de tradition française’ led by Jacques de Laprade, further marginalised him from the modern mainstream. To see him partnered with Matisse in an exhibition that recognises him as an equal is a service that is long overdue.

The show opens with two self-portraits. Matisse’s painting (Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen; cat. no.1) is the earlier, and shows him resolute to the point of defiance. Bonnard, on the other hand, backs away from his own reflection as though caught off-guard, the spectacles that helped him see more clearly protecting his eyes from being observed (Self-portrait; 1930; Triton Collection Foundation; no.2). Matisse’s Self-portrait was painted in the summer of 1906, several months after he had visited Bonnard’s exhibition at the Galerie Vollard in the rue Laffitte. The catalogue tells us that Matisse kept the invitation card ‘his entire life as a momento’,2 a pleasing thought that is given greater credence by Matisse’s purchase in 1911 of a small Bonnard oil painting of 1907, Evening in the living room (no.20; Fig.18). Later the same year Matisse visited his principal Russian patrons, Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morosov, and spent some time studying Russian icons in order to learn what he called ‘the essence of art’. Bonnard’s lifelong celebration of intimacy and privacy, exemplified in his 1907 evocation of an evening with his sister’s close-knit family, must have contained enough of the ‘essence of art’ for Matisse to want to spend a lifetime in its company. In the same room at the Städel is The open window (no.56; Fig.17), a work by Matisse that Bonnard purchased in 1912 from the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune.

It is as though both artists deliberately chose a work by the other that conflicted with their own inclinations. Bonnard’s lamp-lit domestic scene is ‘intimisme’ at its most confined and condensed, while Matisse’s sparsely-painted green and pink interior is as open to the air as the landscape beyond. Both works are shown together with the two self-portraits and a magnificent late Matisse painting, Asia (1946; Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth; no.84), which the artist lent to Bonnard when the two were neighbours in the south of France. This subtly choreographed opening sets the tone of the exhibition. 

Each painter was attentive to the other and it is that attentiveness that lies behind the admirable selection made by Felix Krämer and his co-curator Daniel Zamani. Many years elapsed between Bonnard’s purchase of The open window and his own painting The dining room (c.1925; Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen; no.30), one of several major works in which an interior merges with the landscape beyond in a seamless orchestration of colour. Reconciling the near and the far in a way that stayed true to the flatness of the picture plane was an aim they shared from the start. For Matisse it was by means of the window, open to the land or the sea – a subject he never tired of – while for Bonnard spatial investigation began with reflections in the bedroom mirror. 

The edge where two planes meet is however where the two men parted ways. Matisse was always the cut-out artist, planes pasted over the surface next to or over each other, while Bonnard slowly brushed his way across a surface creating a loosely-knit skein of colour. Nowhere is this difference more instructive than in the room where Bonnard’s Dining room is hung at right angles to a pair of late still-lifes by Matisse, Large red interior (1948; Musée national d’art moderne, Paris; no.34) and Interior with black fern (1948; Foundation Beyeler, Basel; no.33). Light is the subject of all three works but whereas Matisse uses it as an instrument of attack, blazing away with scarlet reds and ringing yellows, for Bonnard light is an instrument of suggestion, the blended colours slowly building to a crescendo of brightness as the room opens up to the light outside.

The works are arranged thematically – interiors, landscapes, still-lifes and nudes. Of these only one fails to ignite, and that is landscape. Matisse’s landscape was more or less confined to his studio, where things could be ordered and controlled, whereas Bonnard revelled in the outdoors, the more unordered and rebellious the better. The nude was the subject they had most in common. Matisse’s nudes, always posed, are fleshy, alive to his presence, complicit in the theatre of the studio. Bonnard had less need of the living model. Many of his nudes are either memories of Greek or Roman sculpture seen in the Louvre (his love of classical sculpture was at odds with Matisse’s interest in African figures and masks) or evocations of Marthe, his life-long companion. Two superb near-contemporary paintings demonstrate the mastery each painter had over this most traditional of subjects: Matisse’s Large reclining nude (no.79; Fig.19) and Bonnard’s The large bathtub (no.80; Fig.20). Few would question that of the two painters Bonnard was the more uneven, but as Matisse well knew, and as this finely judged exhibition demonstrates, Bonnard was not only a match for any painter of his generation, but the one Matisse had good reason to respect the most.

1 ‘Vive la Peinture!’, Matisse’s greeting to Bonnard written on a postcard sent from Amsterdam, 13th August 1925, private collection.

2 Quoted on p.220 of the Catalogue: Matisse Bonnard: Long Live Painting! Edited by Felix Krämer, with contributions by Dita Amory, Daniel Zamani, Margrit Hahnloser-Ingold, Beate Söntgen, Iris Hasler, Elena Schroll and Jenny Graser. 240 pp. incl. numerous col. + b. & w. ills. (Städel Museum, Frankfurt, and Prestel, Munich, London, New York, 2017), €49.95. ISBN 978–3–7913–5632–7.