Art Thoughts, Week 34 -- Bonnard & Writing

Young Woman Writing, Pierre Bonnard (French, 1867—1947), 1908, oil on canvas, BF 367.

Letter writing, a daily discipline for several generations, is today largely dead. Done in by email, instant messaging and other more immediate methods of communicating, it is a mode of crafting a connected intimacy that has not found a satisfactory replacement. In Young Woman Writing, Bonnard captured a woman in the midst of her various correspondences. And being the painter, often, of carefully considered interiors (much like his friend and fellow Nabis, Vuillard) Bonnard mimicked this domestic transfer of intimacies that letter-writing is, in his own favored form of communicating, painting. Writing a letter, in fact, is essentially an interior to exterior action. That is, like all writing, it emerges from the culled and organized synapses of an interior human space, and then through a recording medium, to the intended recipient – it is inside to outside; life to life.

Another French painting of a generation or two earlier, The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David (pronounced dah-VEED) may serve as a useful opposite of Young Woman Writing. Marat was an incendiary journalist for the cause of the 18th century revolutionary Jacobins, who was assassinated by a loyalist to the throne, to quiet the rousing clangs of his pen. David, an artist and fellow revolutionary, painted this as a tribute to Marat. In it, the stabbed writer is sprawled over the left end of his bathtub, in which he sat as treatment for a skin condition, expired with pen still in hand. It is a moving, but mythic image; a memorial’s presence in paint. It is also a painting which illustrates the exterior world collapsing back upon the interior world, from whence the revolutionizing writing emanated. When viewed alongside the David, Bonnard’s quiet interior in which light is seeping in from the outside, seems a mirror image of the artificially-lit David, the dark side of the pen’s power. And while the letters floating out into the bathtub-like table in the Bonnard likely hold everyday news and sentiments, the pen which Marat holds is still smoldering from the vitriol which it disseminated.

The two paintings also illustrate very different forms of life. In the David, life as encompassed by this man, this pen, this presence has stopped: David has carved the name like an epitaph – the air is still – a force has been extinguished. The Bonnard, though filled with the quiet of an afternoon’s duties, vibrates with life on its luminous edges – the shimmering, wiggling brushwork on the lilac and cream curtains; the lean of tensed, animal-like furniture – all point to an absorbed tautness. And while Marat’s death-clamp holds tightly the letter he was composing, emblematic of a stream blocked, the letter writer in the Bonnard continues quietly writing, sending them out onto the scarlet table like toy sailboats, wending their ways to the larger ocean; small but meaning-wrought messengers. David has painted a memorial to a life of words which ultimately collapsed upon itself. Too violent to stand forever without harming its producer, it returned from the outside, back inside; death to death. Bonnard, on the other hand, painted a scene in which the outside world (the recipient) of the letters is almost inconsequential – and at the most, implied. Between the both of them, however, it’s apparent that regardless of outcome, the complications of human life and the inevitable recording of it, must and will continue.
(below, The Death of Marat, by Jacques-Louis David, 1793)

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