#87. Richard Ward writes on Matisse-Bonnard at the Städel Museum, Frankfurt

Henri Matisse, “Open Window at Coullioure”, 1911

Matisse-Bonnard : Long Live Painting, is at the Staedal Museum Frankfurt until14th January 2018


This exhibition consists of about seventy paintings, including major works of both artists, together with drawings, sketchbooks and some of the Jazz cut-outs. The hanging is organised according to subject matter – interior, still-life, landscape, nude etc. No portraits are included. In contrast to the celebrated Matisse/Picasso exhibition of 2002, this is no confrontation. Paintings of both artists are hung in the same room but seldom on the same wall or directly alongside each other – an arrangement that aptly reflects a friendship of forty years, composed of letters and visits, practical and moral support, mutual admiration and an apparent lack of rivalry.

This lack of rivalry was made possible, I think, by the very different approaches of these two men to their art, a factor that can already be seen in their sketches and drawings.
Matisse´s fluid, confident line forms and divides up space. It is a direct act of creation on the empty page. I think it is worth taking his own statement (repeated at the end of his life) about providing “a good armchair” seriously. His lifelong project was the creation of oases of luxe, calme et volupté – good objects (in Adrian Stoke´s sense), able to promote inner harmony, quiet, and well-being through their contemplation and internalisation. His artistic development can be seen as a continuous refinement of the technical means to achieving this aim.

By contrast, Bonnard’s hesitant, repeated, searching lines are a form of exploration. His avowed intention was to go further than the Impressionists by adding the distortions and modifications of subjectivity and emotion to their project of recording light. This approach is more radically non-objective than Impressionism, addressing sensation itself rather than a rationally organised reality filled with objects and the light reflected from them. His is an existential search for clarity of introspection (these days one might call it mindfulness) and its expression in a visual form.

Henri Matisse, drawing

Pierre Bonnard, drawing

This difference of approach is visible throughout the exhibition and manifests itself in various ways: Matisse´s primary creation is pictorial space. Even a simple, almost sketch-like painting, such as the amazing “Open Window at Coullioure” (1911) is full of it. His means are almost always figurative and he seems happiest with interiors, where he can use the straight edges for linear perspective and arrange various bits of furniture, rugs, paintings etc. to make the space do his will. “Still-Life with the Dance” (1909) is an early example of this. When he ventures outside as in “The Pond at Trivaux” (1916/17) the trees and bushes become his furniture and linear is replaced by scalar perspective.

Pierre Bonnard, “Balcony in Vernonnet”, 1920

For Bonnard, space doesn´t seem to have been a primary concern at all. His exploration of the possibilities for expressing sensation strives to be pre-conceptual – objects and space dissolving into the visual and emotional impressions they engender. His paintings are often spatial, but it is not a space of his deliberate creation. It is space that arises for the viewer from his attempts to express sensation, and it can be perfectly familiar “The Changing Room” (1914), vaguely unsettling “The Dining Room” (1925) or downright unearthly “Family in the Garden” (1901). It is in these latter paintings (“Balcony in Vernonnet” (1920) is another one) that space becomes most obviously an abstract quality, defying any rationalisation into three measurable dimensions.

Henri Matisse, “Seated Woman with a Vase of Amaryllis” 1941

For both artists, pictorial space is accompanied by a strongly defined picture plane. Matisse achieves this most characteristically with flat, unmodulated (or flatly patterned) planes of colour, to be seen everywhere in this exhibition, but perhaps most obviously in the “Seated woman with a vase of Amaryllis” (1941) and “Asia” (1946), accompanied where necessary with a strategic contradiction of the prevailing perspective as in the left-hand picture/window/doorway in “Large Red Interior” (1948).

Pierre Bonnard.”Seated Nude”, 1919

There’s a sense in which a flat picture plane is intrinsic to Bonnard’s project. Appearance is two dimensional (as Hans Hofmann emphasised). We do not use our stereoscopic vision for most of the time. One eye is always favoured by consciousness, while the other comes into use unconsciously when close-range precision is required or the favoured eye obstructed. You can check this by looking into the distance through a window with glazing bars, and closing one eye at a time. With one eye nothing changes, with the other, everything moves along. Bonnard´s exploration of visual sensation thus involves flatness as a primary condition. Whatever the spatial illusion they engender, his works have the classical, painterly flatness achieved by exact attention to edges and colour, to be seen for example in “Seated Nude” (1919).

Henri Matisse, “Asia”, 1946

Matisse can do this too (“Odalisque with a Tambourine”, 1925) but as evidenced in this exhibition by “Asia” and the cut-outs, it is the flat monochrome planes that he ends up pursuing to the last, even to the extent of abandoning paint and (by his own admission) embracing design and decoration. I think this is a logical consequence of his “good armchair” project, and that his vision at the end was similar to that of Mondrian – for whole rooms or buildings as enveloping environments of, respectively, neo-plastic harmony or luxe, calme et volupté. The cut-outs (not the little Jazz cut-outs here but the large ones such as “The Snail” or “The Parrot and the Mermaid”) could then be seen not as independent artworks, but as partial designs for architectural commissions that he never received.

Henri Matisse, “Open Window at Etretat”, 1920

Light is also a distinguishing factor. The paintings of Matisse are mostly filled with a clear, diffuse light with no obvious source apart from the paint itself. To my mind, this is achieved not through any subtleties of colour but for the most part by dispensing as far as possible with chiaroscuro or any other manipulation or specific indication of light so that the generous empty spaces are automatically filled with light by the viewer. The brightness of this light is determined by the contrasts in the painting. This is well illustrated in “Open Window at Étretat” (1920) where dull browns, yellows and greys make for subdued light inside while the stark black and white of the boat outside, together with the dark huts and pale sky, fill this other space with daylight. In “Open Window at Coullioure” the contrasts are the same inside and out, and the room is flooded with light, as if it had no roof and walls. For me, this even, all-encompassing light is Matisse´s most impressive discovery. It gives his paintings a transcendence over reality, turning the best of them into a kind of revelation. Ironic (or perhaps to be expected) that it is not actively created by the artist but comes instead as the result of not-doing.

Pierre Bonnard, “After the Shower”, 1914

Pierre Bonnard, “The Bowl of Milk”, c.1919

Bonnard´s light is different and more complicated. Light in his paintings is not a property of space but one of surfaces or areas of a two-dimensional visual plane. Sometimes it would almost seem better to speak of tonal colour rather than light as such – a description that seems appropriate when looking at “After the Shower” (1914) or “Seated Nude” (1919). Where there are stronger contrasts and highlights, then these are local patches of brightness. “The Bowl of Milk” (1919) or “Nude with a Mirror” (1931) would both be incoherent as depictions of physical light.
Bonnard once described his subject as “the appearance of things in the exact moment of entering a room” – that is presumably before sensation has been organised by rationality. His endeavour and sometimes his light seem close to that of Morandi – exploring not the physical world but visual perception as an aspect of existence itself. The results can sometimes be bizarre. “Breakfast by the Radiator” (1930) summons up a rather gloomy room but the painting as a whole beams from the wall like a searchlight.

Pierre Bonnard, “Breakfast by the Radiator”, 1930

Intense colour is a characteristic of both artists, though in this exhibition neither departs entirely from natural colouring, and both have some surprisingly drab paintings also on show.
Matisse´s artificial interiors with their exotic hangings, flowers, robes, vases etc. enable him to compose with colour more or less at will. This gives him almost the same freedom as an abstract colour-field painter, or possibly even more, since his colour is largely relieved of its space-making duties by the figuration of his drawing. He uses this compositional elbow-room for daring colour harmonies, often involving highly keyed primaries, as in “Large Reclining Nude” (1935) and “Asia”. For me, it is this aspect of his work that makes of him a link between figurative and abstract painting.

Henri Matisse, “Large Reclining Nude”, 1935

Bonnard´s colour seems more expressive and less natural, even though it is mostly not as vivid. Maybe it is the intimacy and ordinariness of his scenes that make the sudden reds and oranges on walls, skin and hair or the bright blue of a shadow seem so surreal. Here, coloured areas are invariably broken into a myriad of variously coloured brushstrokes. This can give them an intangible feel – blurring contours and making everything slightly atmospheric and transparent. The wall, the sky, the mirror and the door in “Breakfast by the Radiator” all have this transparency and mirage-like indeterminacy – Plato´s flickering shadows on the cave wall.

Henri Matisse, “Nude on a Yellow Sofa”, 1926

Both men are represented with numerous paintings of nudes, and here too the different approaches lead to different results. Although space, light and colour are the most significant components of Matisse´s paintings, he shied away from abstraction early on, perhaps realising that he needed figuration to achieve his particular kind of spatiality. In a way then, the objects that he uses to create and manipulate his space are not essentially significant in themselves. To put it harshly (and excepting the portraits, of which there are none in Frankfurt), there are tables, chairs, chessboards, screens, vases, paintings, windows, bowls, flowers and women. It is perhaps unfortunate that the exhibition includes three paintings “Nude on a Yellow Sofa” (1926), “Reclining Nude with a Towel” (1923/24) and “Odalisques” (1928), where the naked bodies do little more than modify space. They are economically drawn, with a fluid, practised line and modelled to give them volume, but that is what they remain – volumes in space. None of the erotic charge of Matisse´s drawings has survived into these paintings. Vitality, individuality, if any, resides in the faces, and it is interesting to note that, in stark contrast to Bonnard, Matisse nearly always paints his models in considerably more than just profile. Perhaps these women are so often there in his paintings simply because Matisse needed the presence of a model to summon his vision of the “good object”. According to Adrian Stokes and Melanie Klein, the original good object is the motherly breast.
“Odalisque with a Tambourine” (1925/26) is a much better painting, and here luxe and volupté are properly embodied in a warm and sentient figure.

Henri Matisse, “Odalisques”, 1928

Interestingly, the nude bodies are the last things to get flattened in Matisse´s painting. Nor did this development seem to truly satisfy him. The celebrated “Large Reclining Nude” (1935) is the first completely flattened body and very nearly the last. Subsequently most of his (painted) women are clothed, as in “Asia” (1946)

Pierre Bonnard, “Nude at a Window”, 1922

For Bonnard, the nude would seem to be a perfect subject on account of its strong visual and emotional components. In Frankfurt, this proves to be the case. The faces are mostly turned away but Bonnard doesn´t need facial expressions to convey vitality.  “Seated Nude” (1919), “Nude at a Window” (1922) and “The Fireplace” (1916) are all wonderfully tender, empathic responses to human nakedness. We know exactly how it would feel to touch these bodies and exactly how it would feel to be so touched. Their erotic promise is that of union and the dissolution of self. Bonnard´s model was almost invariably his own wife, while Matisse´s models were often paid professionals. It is not surprising then, that Matisse cannot match Bonnard´s intimacy. The erotic charge of his drawings and (some of) his paintings is an external, visual one of possession and/or possession denied.

Pierre Bonnard, “Family in the Garden”, 1921

And the relevance to abstract painting? Neither of these projects, the creation of “good objects” and the exploration of possibilities for the expression of subjective experience, would seem to require figuration. The power of Matisse´s paintings lies in their harmonious organisation of space, light and colour. For his way of working, the space (and in his case therefore the light too) depends on figuration, but there are other, abstract ways to be found – ways that would also avoid the suspicion of literal, decadent kitsch that inevitably attaches to much of Matisse´s figurative content. Mondrian´s work already shows a way. And the Bonnardian exploration of subjective sensation would only seem to involve a kind of figuration for as long as it concentrates on visual sensation. The emotional content that he wanted to add to the visual content of the Impressionists could surely find an abstract expression too.

Both projects still have a role to play – the Matissean as orientation and healing in a world beset with trauma and the Bonnardian as inspiration to stay in touch with the mystery of existence for a culture increasingly content to live an ersatz life of consumption and virtual reality. As previously remarked, this is no confrontation, and there are no winners and losers, especially as I suspect that Bonnard is rather better represented in the exhibition than Matisse. If I had to take a painting home, then it would be either “Open Window at Coullioure” for its fresh air and light, or any one of about ten Bonnards, for their intense and inquiring human presence.


  1. Never can get enough of Matisse and Bonnard.Having them side by side has obviously generated some thoughtful responses on the part of Richard Ward. I remember once realizing that Vermeer and Rembrandt place their subjects in rooms that are lit from the outside. You don’t see what is outside,just that the outside is a source of light illuminating the interior.For Bonnard and Matisse you see both simultaneously.They push against each other and compress the space.For the most part there is no “flat space” in their work.Clearly this dynamic evolved into the push and pull of Hoffmann and set the stage for pure abstraction. I will never forget a discussion with Al Held about a portrait of Madame Matisse that had that dynamic where her body is compressed between the back of the chair she is sitting in and an orange scarf. This compressed space packs a lot of energy.

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  2. This is a very valuable contribution. I’d like to have seen and heard more on Bonnard’s drawing style. There are one or two assertions that I would take issue with, but since the show is not confrontational, better to let them pass. But on the evidence on the screen alone, Bonnard comes out very strongly. The show could have been made more confrontational had leading shared motifs been paired directly, but this would have necessitated borrowings from major collections all around the world. Matisse can seem baldly normative when set beside the “crimble crumble” of Bonnard’s loving touch. But as Richard says, in the real encounter in a real space, Matisse is the stronger and more architectural colourist. Still life Interior with Egyptian Curtain 1947 for example. Good article though.


    1. Thank you, Alan.
      Yes, I agree about Matisse´s structure and colour. It tends to give his work a more immediate impact too. Bonnard is slower and might well (at least temporarily) get blown off the wall by some of the possible comparisons. The curators have done a good job in keeping them apart.
      Ironically, the only side-by-side hanging I can remember from the exhibition was Bonnard´s “The Work Table” (1926-37) with Matisse´s rather muted “Still-Life with The Dance” (1909), where Bonnard has more impact, but with a very Matissean painting.


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