Museum exhibit catalogues: The best and the foggiest

July 12, 1998|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Much of my life, I've loved looking at painting and sculpture. I also have spent a good deal of time reading about them. Almost without exception, when I read about art, my mind leaps to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Famously, in his six-line epic, "There Was a Little Girl," he wrote: "And when she was good/She was very, very good,/But when she was bad she was horrid."

The chasm between clarity and incomprehensibility, between competence and blathering, appears in art journal articles and both popular and scholarly books. But it is most evident in exhibition catalogues. Now comes one catalogue that almost magically dramatizes that dichotomy.

It is "Bonnard: Essays" by Sarah Whitfield and John Elderfield, Catalogue by Sarah Whitfield (Abrams, 269 pages, $60). Whitfield's essay is very, very good - reasoned, clear-headed, deft. Elderfield's is horrid - execrably.

Does it matter? Many people would say hardly at all. More often than not, catalogue essays are assigned as a sort of gratuity to museum directors or curators for organizing work they have done. In publish-or-perish jungles, they bloat scholarly formal resumes.

Some such books, in the worst of the coffee-table tradition, are kept to ornament a room or to impress visitors, in the manner that lions are said to leave the stripped and bleached bones of their prey in their caves.

In fairness, many people bring them home from museums - or from remainder tables - to look at the reproductions and in doing so, often, to read the caption material. The majority of people I know who keep exhibition catalogues say they seldom if ever read the catalogues' essays.

I would argue, however, that such writing potentially is truly important, to the understanding of art and thus its mighty role in the course of civilization.

Whitfield, an independent scholar, is curator of the current exhibition of Pierre Bonnard's work, which she undertook for the Tate Gallery in London. Elderfield holds the title of chief curator at large at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where the exhibition moved, under his guidance, and opened last month. It will remain until Oct. 13. Do see it if you can. It is a wondrous revelation of the work of a magnificent, much misunderstood, painter.

But my concern is not Bonnard's art. It's the writing about his art. Much, most, of Whitfield's text and captions are devoted to examining specific works and their relationships to Bonnard's life and art. She makes many of the pictures clear, without a hint of the culture-theory ideological cant that poisons a lot of such work.

Without a sermonical note, Whitfield reminds the reader that the most important single thing to keep in mind in looking at art - and very especially in looking at modern art - is that a painting (or sculpture or drawing or whatever) is not of something. A work, rather, is something.

Pursuing that, she very usefully quotes Maurice Denis, an associate of Bonnard's in the group that called itself the "Nabis" (Hebrew, meaning "prophets"): "We should remember that a picture, before it is a battle horse or a naked woman or some sort of narrative, is basically a flat surface covered with paints put together in a certain order."

No single quote can justly represent a detailed analytic. But a mark of the power of her essay is in its concluding sentences, which say that Bonnard "has often been described as a painter of pleasure, but he is not a painter of pleasure. He is a painter of the effervescence of pleasure and the disappearance of pleasure. His celebration of life is one side of a coin, the other side of which is always present - a lament for transience."

A complex thought, stated with ringing clarity.

Elderfield's essay is presented as examining "Bonnard's awareness of the complexities of visual perception." There is unfairness in taking passages out of full context. With that said, here is Elderfield:

"Let me describe what actually happens when I suddenly enter a room. The first two of the following things will happen simultaneously; the third may happen almost immediately afterwards. (1) The occluding edge of the doorframe expands to uncover or 'unwipe' the new visual array, then recedes and retracts behind me to wipe out the old one and is itself wiped out. (2) A shearing of optical texture occurs at the peripheral borders of the array because (as we have learned) the acuity of the eye quickly diminishes outside central, foveal vision. I find it impossible, in fact, clearly to see the entire room all of a sudden in this stage of 'global' pre-attentive vision before any purposive scanning ..."

Enough!

Elderfield has some interesting, serious things to say - especially about the perception of an element of time passing within single paintings. But throughout, his style, language and structure obscure the substance.

Very usefully, another book has come out to coincide with the exhibition. It is "Interpreting Bonnard: Color and Light" by Nicholas Watkins (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 80 pages, $16.95). Watkins is a lecturer at the University of Leicester in England and an estimable art historian. His book's text, little longer than Elderfield's, is a model of directness and clarity. If you find yourself interested in Bonnard, read it as well as Whitfield's essay between two visits to the exhibition.

And skip Elderfield - until he gets a translator.

! Pub Date: 7/12/98

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