Notes on “The Bowl of Milk”

I normally can’t stand hearing about the working habits of famous artists. Whether by sheer talent or some fiendish work ethic, they tend to be hyper-productive in a way that I could never be. Thankfully, there are counter-examples – like the painter Pierre Bonnard. As you can read in the first room of the Bonnard exhibition now at Tate Modern, he often took years to finish a painting, putting it to one side before coming back to it and reworking it multiple times. He was known to continue tinkering with his paintings when he came across them hanging on the wall of somebody’s house. At the very end of his life, no longer able to paint, he instructed his nephew to change a section of his final work Almond Tree in Blossom (1947).

Maybe this is wishful thinking, but I find things that have been agonised over to acquire a special kind of depth. In many ways Bonnard is not my kind of painter, but his work rewards close attention. There is hardly an inch of his canvases where you do not find different tones layered over each other – layers not only of paint, but of time and effort – creating a luminous sea of brushstrokes which almost swarms in front of your eyes. And this belaboured quality is all the more intriguing given the transience of his subject matter: gardens bursting with euphoric colour, interiors drenched in vibrant light, domestic scenes that capture the briefest of moments during the day.

Nowhere is this tension more pronounced than in The Bowl of Milk (1919). Pictured is a room with a window overlooking the sea, and two tables ranged with items of crockery and a vase of flowers. In the foreground stands a woman wearing a long gown and holding a bowl, presumably for the cat which approaches in the shadows at her feet. Yet there is something nauseating, almost nightmarish about this image. Everything swims with indeterminacy, vanishing from our grasp. So pallid is the light pouring through the window that at first I assumed it was night outside. The objects and figures crowding the room shimmer as though on the point of dissolving into air. The woman’s face is a vague, eyeless mask. The painting is composed so that if you focus on one particular passage, everything else recedes into a shapeless soup in the periphery of your vision. It is a moment of such vivid intensity that one is forced to realise it has been conjured from the depths of fantasy.

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The woman in The Bowl of Milk is almost certainly Marthe de Méligny, formerly Maria Boursin, Bonnard’s lifelong model and spouse. They met in Paris in 1893, where de Méligny was employed manufacturing artificial flowers for funerals. Some five years later, Bonnard began to exhibit paintings that revealed their intimate domestic life together. These would continue throughout his career, with de Méligny portrayed in various bedrooms, bathrooms and hallways, usually alone, usually nude, and often in front of a mirror.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947). "Nu dans le bain". Huile sur toile, 1936. Paris, musée d'Art moderne.
Pierre Bonnard “Nude in the Bath” (1936). Oil paint on canvas. Paris, musée d’Art moderne.

It was not an uncomplicated relationship: Bonnard is thought to have had affairs, and when the couple eventually married in 1925 de Méligny revealed she had lied about her name and age (she had broken off contact with her family before moving to Paris). They were somewhat isolated. De Méligny is described as having a silent and unnerving presence, and later developed a respiratory disease which forced them to spend periods on the Atlantic coast. Yet Bonnard’s withdrawal from the Parisian art scene, where he had been prominent during his twenties, allowed him to develop his exhaustive, time-leaden painting process, and to forge his own style. The paintings of de Méligny seem to relish the freedom enabled by familiarity and seclusion. One of the gems of the current Tate exhibition are a series of nude photographs that the couple took of one another in their garden in the years 1899-1901. In each of these unmistakeably Edenic pictures, we see a bright-skinned body occupying a patch of sunlight, securely framed by shadowy thickets of grass and leaves.

pierre-bonnard-1900-1901-jardin-de-montval-marthe-bonnard-rmn1

pierre-bonnard-1900-1901-jardin-de-montval-marthe-bonnard-rmn
(Source: https://dantebea.com/category/peintures-dessins/pierre-bonnard/page/2/)

The female figure in The Bowl of Milk is far from familiar: she is a flicker of memory, a robed phantasm. But like other portrayals of de Méligny, this painting revels in the erotics of space, whereby the proximity and secrecy of the domestic setting are charged with the presence of a human subject – an effect only heightened by our voyeuristic discomfort at gaining access to this private world. There is no nudity, but a disturbing excess of sensual energy in the gleaming white plates, the crimson anemones, the rich shadows and the luxurious stride of the cat. To describe these details as sexual is to lessen their true impact: they are demonic, signalling the capacity of imagination to terrorise us with our own senses.

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In 1912 Bonnard bought a painting by Henri Matisse, The Open Window at Collioure (1905). Matisse would soon emerge as one of the leading figures of modern painting, but the two were also friends, maintaining a lively correspondence over several decades. And one can see what inspired Bonnard to make this purchase: doors and windows appear continually in his own work, allowing interior space to be animated by the vitality of the outside world.

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Henri Matisse, “The Open Window at Collioure” (1905). Oil paint on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington
Pierre Bonnard L'atelier au mimosa 1939-46 Musée National d'Art Moderne - Centre Pompidou (Paris, France)
Pierre Bonnard, “The Studio with Mimosas” (1939-46). Oil paint on canvas. Musée National d’Art Moderne – Centre Pompidou, Paris.

More revealing, though, are the differences we can glean from The Open Window at Collioure. Matisse’s painting, with its flat blocks of garish colour, is straining towards abstraction. As a formal device, the window merely facilitates a jigsaw of squares and rectangles. Such spatial deconstruction and pictorial simplification were intrinsic to the general direction of modernism at this time. This, however, was the direction from which the patient and meticulous Bonnard had partly stepped aside. For he remained under the influence of impressionist painting, which emphasised the subtlety and fluidity of light and colour as a means of capturing the immediacy of sensory experience. Thus, as Juliette Rizzi notes, Bonnard’s use of “framing devices such as doors, mirrors, and horizontal and vertical lines” allow him a compromise of sorts. They do not simplify his paintings so much as provide an angular scaffolding around which he can weave his nebulous imagery.

The window and its slanted rectangles of light are crucial to the strange drama of The Bowl of Milk. Formally, this element occupies the very centre of the composition, holding it in place. But it is also a source of ambiguity. The window is seemingly a portal to another world, flooding the room with uncanny energy. The woman appears stiff, frozen at the edge of a spotlight. It’s as though the scene has been illuminated just briefly – before being buried in darkness again.

Frank Auerbach: The Art of Immersion

This article was first published online by Prospect Magazine on 7 Oct 2013

Frank Auerbach’s studio, where the painter has worked day and night for almost sixty years, has long been treasured by journalists, photographers and art historians. The dusty room in Camden, devoid of worldly possessions and inhabited by “stratified chunks of paint,” has itself been painted continuously in words, as if visitors are intoxicated by turpentine and charcoal dust. Artists’ workplaces often create magical atmospheres, and these studio narratives fill me with jealousy. But it seems that the urge to describe this room stems also from the fact that Auerbach himself is so difficult to grasp.

Frank Auerbach came to Britain in 1939, aged eight, a refuge of Nazism and soon to be orphaned. He does not fit glamorous notions of artistic genius. Compared with some of his friends in the London group which has dominated British painting in the last six decades—Francis Bacon the stalker of Soho backstreets, Lucian Freud the gambler—Auerbach’s is not a personality that generates its own column inches. Instead, his story is underwritten by patience, erudition and endless repetition. He has painted the same handful of sitters and landscapes in a precise cycle spiralling back to the beginning of his career; only his style fluctuates, gradually, like an ocean. His art, despite the constant respect of his peers, has at times been incompatible with a mainstream establishment seduced by novelty.

Frank Auerbach, Head of E.O.W (1965), oil on canvas. (© Frank Auerbach/courtesy of Marlborough Fine Art)
Frank Auerbach, Head of E.O.W (1965), oil on canvas. (© Frank Auerbach/courtesy of Marlborough Fine Art)

However, that is no longer the case. Auerbach now has not only the financial and critical success he deserves, he also has an honour most artists could only dream of. As of this weekend, at the Ordovas gallery on Savile Row, his work hangs alongside Rembrandt. “Raw Truth: Auerbach – Rembrandt” presents six of Auerbach’s paintings from 1961-5 alongside four works by the 17th century Dutch master.

Auerbach has long spoken about Rembrandt’s influence, and it is clear in the works selected. Three blistering portrayals of Primrose Hill echo, amplify and distort Rembrandt’s brooding etch, The Three Trees. Auerbach’s The Sitting Room and Rembrandt’s biblical scene Joseph Telling his Dreams share structural elements. The works create a rhythm of their own, drawing you in to examine the infinitely detailed Rembrandts, and out again to allow Auerbach’s broad patterns to take shape.

It is tempting to say that the contrast makes Rembrandt appear strikingly modern. In the Portrait of Dr Ephraïm Bueno, the thick brushstrokes seem to presage not only Auerbach but also Soutine. The fertile darkness of The Three Trees is almost suggestive of Goya. Yet this anachronistic approach is misleading. It repeats the conceit that some sort of decisive dislocation—whether it be advanced capitalism or photography—separates “modern” art from all that went before it. This leads to a patronising discussion about which artists from history should be granted the right to join us on this side. It also implies that modern artists need answer only to new criteria.

Installation shot from "Raw Truth" at Ordovas Gallery, Saville Row. Photography by Mike Bruce
Auerbach’s three paintings of Primrose Hill from 1964-5. Installation shot from “Raw Truth” at Ordovas Gallery, Saville Row. Photography by Mike Bruce

The idea behind the Rembrandt/Auerbach exhibition is that there has been not one great upheaval but many—that revolution is itself the common language of great art. Perhaps no living artist could fill this brief as effectively as Auerbach, who considers artists of all ages his contemporaries in an ongoing conversation of ideas. The exhibition is a moving vindication of this deep engagement with the past.

At the stage of his career seen in “Raw Truth,” Auerbach was applying paint with unprecedented thickness­—he recently joked that he would no longer be able to lift one of these canvases—as a result of countless sessions reworking each piece. This unrelenting approach reflects his belief that a subject must be properly understood before its “raw truth” can be reached. Such an understanding is technical, but also emotional, grinding down all superficial relations to discover a fleeting essence. Becoming familiar with a subject “leads you to its unfamiliarity,” he once said, “just as people only blurt out the raw truth in the middle of a family quarrel.”

The purpose of Auerbach’s inner quarrel is to offer the viewer an experience scarcely available in contemporary art: immersion. In an age dominated by momentary distraction, Auerbach, like Rembrandt, presents us with a puzzle, an overwhelming and uncomfortable question. His art is a labyrinth, in the centre of which the viewer must find him. He reminds us that immersing yourself in a painting can be an intense, gripping experience. As Auerbach himself put it, “I dislike the idea of ‘art for the people’—what people like is great art!”