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Queering the Male Nude: Reading Pierre Bonnard’s Dressing Table and Mirror (c.1913)

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Monday, 30 Jul 2018, 19:45

Queering the Male Nude: Reading Pierre Bonnard’s Dressing Table and Mirror (image Houston Museum of Fine Arts: https://www.mfah.org/art/detail/1545.)

There has been an explosion of interest in the idea of male interiors recently[1]. This blog takes its tone from ‘queer theory’ but we need to be clear that this theory is not about the discovery of homosexual themes – hence the decision to take Bonnard as its theme, a man who showed little or no interest in any other male body than his own (but in that some significant interest). The point of queer theory is that despises the act of dividing the world epistemologically into zones of knowledge known as heterosexual and homosexual, even gay and straight, but abandons duality in the analysis of sexualities and exposes us to the latter’s complexity[2]. This is something I tried to do with Titian in a less obvious way by using the neologism ‘homosomatism’ (opens link on a new page).

Perhaps one (or even Linda Nochlin) could be forgiven for thinking that to see a Bonnard interior view, especially his late bathroom scenes, is to see the female body objectified, but that seems an incredibly narrow way of looking at Bonnard’s art, whose career in painting nudes might be effectively evoked in the queering gaze of his drawings of Marthe, his wife-to-be, of the illustrations of Verlaine’s Parallèlement or of equivalent parallel sexualities in the poetry of Mallarmé[3].

In Man and Woman (1867), some critics find the presence of a full-frontal male nude problematic. Some sense that this nude, recognisably a self-portrait is divided - with the lower half-body shaded in  manner suggesting the dual nature of a faun or satyr (half-man, half-goat) (3 again). Such figures do appear in early Bonnard, although often in infantilised versions. There is also certainly distortion in this nude that might be read as perceptual and perspectival. However an elongated male upper leg is also present in Bourgeois Afternoon in the prone but clothed Terrasse senior.

In man and Woman, the long right upper-leg (to our left) may be a perceptual trick. It seems dynamically to thrust the knee into the picture-plane, and (at the same-time, to frame the frank portrayal of Bonnard’s penis. Cahn (2016:34f.) argues that such distortions are schematic in Bonnard’s ‘unlimited universe of painting which gave license to all kinds of distortion … preserving the spontaneity of his visual impressions enhanced by the inventions of his mind.’[4] The forced prominence of the semi-flaccid ‘male sex’ here is such an enhanced visual impression. The horizontal split in the male body with a lower but focally prominent bottom half is mimed in the vertical split between left and right of the picture reinforced by the frame of the mirror / screen.

And here again light contrasts with dark. With the left lighter and less ‘ashamed’ and shaded than the right, emphasising vulnerable young innocence against a more controlling and intentional agency. Similarly the upper and lower sections of the right panel have their own bifurcation of a similar kind. We could equate this enhanced (but definitely distorted) vision with contrasts like innocence and experience, female and male and thoughtless past with a post-experiential (and perhaps coital) present.

Such readings seem less fanciful in the light of Bonnard’s reading of Bergson (cited Hyman 1998:96), where memory and perception are two sides of the same process: in one we sense and lay down memory and in the other we utilise older remembered paradigms to structure the meaning of what we see. Indeed the word ‘doubles’ in the following quotation might further reinforce my sense of the fragmenting dualities of Man and woman, where memory:

Creates anew the present perception; or rather, it doubles this perception by reflecting on its own image …’ (my italics)

I would go as far to see even the haunted doubling of Bonnard’s foot in the shape of the cast-down bed-linen behind his foot as a sign of such haunting doubles.

However this painting is early and less subtle than Bonnard was to become as he reflected on stored images of gender bifurcation and the sense of a masculinity that needed the feminine not only to prosecute its own desire but to represent it. This is why I see the ‘Dressing Table and Mirror’ 1913 as one of the most mature of his queerings of male sexuality. 

Here male embodiment is a doubly-framed object within paradigms that are conventionally read as feminine, from the domestication of animals (dog here not kittens) and airiness of blowing lace and dressing-table furniture, including beautifully doubled blooms, framing and forming one of Bonnard’s most beautiful partial nude self-portraits. In my view, Bonnard’s art deconstruct gender dualities in pictures such as these, in which he does not flinch from becoming himself the object of desire, surrounded by a vulnerability he is prepared to own.

Indeed, Bonnard’s photographs of Marthe nude are really only meaningful if we see them next to Martha’s photographs of Bonnard nude (Cogeval & Kahn 2016:190).

I am aware that this is a more suggestive hint at point-making than a fully teased-out argument. But then this is a blog. It certainly is an idea relating to the concept of ‘male interiors’ and ‘male interiority’ I’d like sometime to develop.


[1] Examples are Balducci, T., Jensen, H.B., & Warner, P.J. [eds.] (2011) Interior Portraiture and Masculine Identity in France, 1789 – 1914. Oxford, Ashgate Publishing.; Potvin, J. (2014) Bachelors of a Different Sort: Queer Aesthetics, Material Culture and the Modern Interior in Britain Manchester, Manchester University Press.

[2] Garcia, C. (2017:12f.) Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s ‘Epistemology of the Closet’ London, Macat International.

[3] Hyman, T. (1998:60ff.) Bonnard (World of Art series) London, Thames and Hudson; Watkins, N. (2016: 238) ‘Bonnard and Decorative Painting’ in Cogeval, G. & Cahn, I. (eds.) Pierre Bonnard: Painting Arcadia New York, Prestel Publishing, 233-241.

[4] Cahn, I. (2016) ‘The Mechanics of Happiness’ in Cogeval, G. & Cahn, I. (eds.) Pierre Bonnard: Painting Arcadia New York, Prestel Publishing, 33-45.

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