La femme d’eau

November 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

Marlene Dumas, Bonnard's Wife (1999)

Marlene Dumas, Bonnard’s Wife (1999)

Last weekend my friend K and I went to see The Nakeds, a show of (mostly) contemporary drawings of the nude, at the Drawing Room in Bermondsey. I’d most been looking forward to seeing the three works by Egon Schiele, but as is often the case, my expectations were upended. The Schieles – a print and two drawings – were merely okay. (Not an adjective I normally apply to Schiele, as any regular visitor to this blog well knows.) No, what really grabbed my attention – and hasn’t let it go since – was a drawing by Marlene Dumas called Bonnard’s Wife.

Dumas’s figures, whether nude or clothed, are usually earthy and in-your-face; they glower and swagger and don’t much care if you like them or not, as long as they have your undivided attention. Bonnard’s Wife couldn’t be more different – though it’s over life-size and the broad brushstrokes are similar to those in Dumas’s other work, the figure is rendered in watercolour, in such a pale grey-blue that it’s almost colourless, fading into the paper. It’s substantial and voluptuous and yet it’s barely there at all.

Pierre Bonnard, Nude against the light (1908)

Pierre Bonnard, Nude against the light (1908)

The marriage of medium and subject can’t have been an accident. Even without the title, I’d have been able to see the allusion to Pierre Bonnard’s countless paintings of Marthe Boursin, his long-time companion and eventual wife, before, during or after a bath. Taken individually, they are beautiful paintings. Together, there’s something quietly but profoundly unsettling about them – whether because they seem to reveal one obsession (Marthe’s seemingly constant need to spend time in the bath – probably because of some mysterious malady, but no one is entirely sure) begetting and feeding another (Bonnard painting her), or because in a number of the later paintings, Bonnard has rendered Marthe’s flesh and the water in such a similar palette that the distinction between the two erodes: a woman who spends so much time immersed in water that she is dissolving in it.

Pierre Bonnard, The Bath (1925)

Pierre Bonnard, The Bath (1925)

But Bonnard always painted Marthe in oils. Dumas, by choosing watercolour instead, suggests that she has become water – just a few particles of pigment suspended in water streaked across the paper.

She is no longer in her element, she is her element.

The Nakeds is on until 29 November.


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