Bonnard (1910): painting and dissonance. by Gerardo Muñoz

Here is a little masterpiece by Pierre Bonnard at the Phillips Collection, “Interior with boy” (1910). Its simplicity does not shy away from the fact that it is a picture struggling with the problem of sensation as the highest task of painting. Bonnard is most definitely working on the threshold of Pissarro for whom the supreme mystery of a picture at the turn of the century is the act of wrestling with sensation as the world is coming to an eclipse. Or, to put it in a straightforward manner: departing from the objectivized world. If there is anything at the outset of the first decade of the twentieth century – from the stretch of 1890s to the 1910s – is the vibrant undertone of a conscious sense of what experience has become in the world. Painting, it would seem, takes up the challenge of this seeming aspect of life among things.

For Bonnard this means disclosing what appears for the first time: “to show what one sees when one enters a room all of a sudden”. And this is what “Interior with boy”(1910)  is showing us: peeking into a room with a boy sitting at a table quietly reading or going through something. The object is dissolved. We are not sure what the boy is doing. But, does it matter? The painting works around this silent vortex (although silent might not be the exact word). The figure does emphatically grows out the different color blocks of the interior (there is a solid black line that makes his body stand out). The effort of painting is achieving the seemingly weightless there-ness of the figure, blending itself to its surround, and gathering a strong sense of its appearance. 

As Bonnard would tell Matisse years later: “I see things differently every day, the sky, objects, everything changes continually; you can drown in it. But that is what brings life” [1]. For Bonnard it is not that painting gifts the events of the world with life; rather it brings the event of life away from the drowsiness of the temporal organization of its own elements. Painting is not disorganized for the sake of disorganization; it organizes life around its unmitigated appearance where form does not have the last word. Hence the insufficiency of the question “What is the boy really doing?”. The attempt to define it would ruin the experience of the painting – the subtle but well placed magenta hue connects a fragment of the back door with the boy’s downwards face, and finally to the left corner of the table. In a superficial sense the magenta is a schism of light coming through the picture, but it is also a diagonal that registers the dissonance of the painting, and thus, its ultimate mystery. Can painting integrate dissonance? The early Lúkacs seem to have thought against it. This is what he had to say in Soul and Form (1910): 

“In painting there cannot be dissonance— it would destroy the form of painting, whose realm lies beyond all categories of the temporal process; in painting, dissonance has to be resolved, as it were, ante rem, it has to form an indissoluble unity with its resolution. But a true resolution— one that was truly realized— would be condemned to remain an unresolved dissonance in all eternity; it would make the work incomplete and thrust it back into vulgar life.” [2].

But does painting need to find a resolution to dissonance, or is it quite the contrary? Bonnard’s search for the ante rem is not the sensorial apprehension to this dilemma; it is what refuses recoiling to “vulgar life”. But the passage from Soul and Form (1910) allows me to claim that the vulgarity of life begins when things start to tip towards the end of appearance; that is, when the soul disappears and the only thing remaining is the aggregation of allocated forms for sake of ‘originality’. If anything is achieved, then, in Bonnard’s “Interior with boy” (1910) is that it folds the question of dissonance to the task of painting while acknowledging that the taking place of life is always unattainable; as invisible as the boy’s inscrutable undertaking can be.




1. Bonnard/Matisse Letters Between Friends: 1925-1946 (H.N. Abrams, 2007), 62.
2. Gyorgy Lukács. “Longing and Form”, in Soul and Form (Columbia University Press, 2010), 123.