This is a painting by Bonnard of his muse, lover and obsession Marthe. The composition shows Marthe in the bath. It is one of an extensive series of such work featuring Marthe bathing, Marthe drying, Marthe preparing, Marthe cleaning, Marthe being – Marthe absorbed. If you are familiar with Bonnard’s enormous, languid, heat-drenched, heart-stoppingly beautiful colour-soaked representations of a mystical France, then you will no doubt be aware of discussions about his besotted gaze. A gaze of awe, tenderness and jealousy that swamps Marthe, contains her, exploits her and serves her up for his reputational enrichment.
Yet my friend Janine Stein is bewildered by this. She told me that when she first stumbled across a Bonnard she found…recognition. Transported into the pictorial world she felt herself to be the bather, held in that moment of being lost in the stillness of a gone-cold bath, looking out toward the light, holding onto. One. More. Moment. Of. Silence. So, it came as a shock to her to find out that the painting was also said to contain a man – unseen – and watching Marthe in the bath. A voyeur. Lurking at the point of origin of Janine’s look. Hiding in plain sight. Jonesing (if you will) on the bridge of Janine’s own nose.
Janine has walked round to drink wine and to discuss paintings and personal histories. She is suitably socially-distanced, we are well ventilated and increasingly inebriated. We are still several weeks away from London Lockdown 2.0. Janine is a natural, spontaneous and endless tale-spinner that whips up a unique gravitational field. When you are inked into the pages she writes you can feel sharply visible and wholly understood. What separates Janine’s short stories from others is her ability to articulate the binocular experience – a disclosing of common value – some nest of universal ideas. She makes you stop to think about things. Like now. Take the Bonnard case – she notes – that the whole ‘male gaze’ claim can seem, well a bit preposterous. How does the painter of the picture end up in some penumbral space between painting and viewer? Stein and I are stumped by this puzzle while acknowledging the rightness of phrases such as ‘the male gaze’ or ‘this painting is voyeuristic’.
The puzzle we are pondering is, should Janine bow to some greater authority over the ‘meaning’ of Bath? Now that she has been made aware of the Institutional Truth about the dynamics between Bonnard and Marthe should she give up her experience of the work or can she continue to cling to it? Trying to sort out that pickle just begs further questions. Such as, by what mechanism does meaning ‘get into’ this pictorial world? Is it some fact to do with what was going on in Bonnard’s head while he painted? Or the result of some subconscious persona Bonnard unwittingly released and realized in the theatre of the fictional bathroom while actually harboring mundane thoughts, like whether it would be baked beans again for dinner? Or is it whatever we project into it while looking at it? Or even, what we can reasonably articulate to a friend about it – some timeless, universal, human value that is not ‘mine’ or ‘yours’ but ‘ours’ to contemplate?
Moreover, why should Janine feel obliged to give up her first joyful impression of the picture for something – frankly – unsavory? After all, if there is no good explanation as to how the voyeur can continue to exist as part of the painting once the painting is finished, why accept the standard interpretation of Bath, over and above how it just strikes you?
We decide to compare Pierre Bonnard’s Bather to Paul Rego’s Dog Woman to see whether a ‘female gaze’ will be something we can more immediately respond to. Can we fold easily into Rego’s slipstream – more easily than that of some 19th century man?
We look at the picture. I have to admit to feeling a lot more fellow-dog woman than fellow-bather of late. That’ll be the wine talking. And seven months of pandemic. But soon it isn’t the wine at all. It’s the joy of seeing in pictures something so utterly true, so apt, so undeniable that you just have to nod the quiet ‘yes’ of understanding (rather than approval or joy). And soon, the discussion of the particular pictures has morphed into one of personal histories again.