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An exhibition of nudes by the 20th century’s greatest artists staged on the Côte d’Azur cannot fail to delight and seduce. Kenneth Clark reckoned that “only in countries touching on the Mediterranean has the nude been at home”, and the array of 80 canvases, ceramics and sculptures at the summer show The Nude from Gauguin to Bonnard at the Musée Bonnard, Le Cannet, gracefully and lucidly unravels modern art’s conflicted debt to classicism.

Rodin’s violently modelled, naturalistic “Eve”; Maillol’s smoothly formal “Eve with the Apple”; Matisse’s stark bronzes “Small Crouching Nude” and “Small Standing Nude” from the family collection; Jean Arp’s abstracted torsos; half a dozen privately owned Giacomettis, including the wonderful painted plaster “Standing Woman with Bouquet of Flowers” and the etiolated “Standing Woman on a Pedestal” and “Standing Woman with her Arms Beside her Body”, where the figure seems about to disappear: here is the story of how the nude became the essential concept with which modern art negotiated, challenged and paid homage to tradition.

It is a great narrative, but the two-year-old, ambitious Musée Bonnard wants something more: to map out a lineage for the difficult painter whose achievement it was established to honour. The Côte d’Azur is lined with artist museums – Matisse, Picasso, Chagall, Léger – but their historical position is fixed. Pierre Bonnard by contrast has an awkward, still evolving reputation as the creator of apparent harmonies of light and colour that disintegrate into uncertain blurs – the museum’s signature paintings “View of Le Cannet” and “Midi Landscape”, for instance. Picasso loathed such works as “a potpourri of indecision”. Clement Greenberg lamented that Bonnard “smells permanently of the fashions of 1900-1914, expressing …the desire of the French middle classes to make history stop and stand still in 1912”. For feminist critic Linda Nochlin, Bonnard is “abject and sinister …elegant pourriture, exquisite rot …best when he kills off or mutilates his subject: [his wife] Marthe dismembered or floating in deathlike passivity”.

Henri Rousseau’s ‘Eve’ (1906-07)

Subtitled with a question, “Eve, Icon of Modernity?”, this show cuts straight to sexual politics, undermining our pleasure in aesthetic form and sensual painterliness with an interrogation of modernism’s use and abuse of the female body. Gauguin’s glowing “And the Gold of Their Bodies”, depicting two young Tahitians, one of them the artist’s 14-year-old lover Tehamana, luxuriating in their naked poses, is a provocative opening. Alongside are watercolour and painted print versions in yellow, brick-red and cinnamon of “Nave Nave Fenua (Delightful Land)”, a Pacific reworking of the Garden of Eden where Tehamana majestically stands her ground as an unrepentant Eve, holding a sprig of flowers rather than the forbidden apple, while a winged serpent hisses in her ear. The frightening undercurrent of this paradise is “Manao tupapau (Spirit of the Dead Watching)”, with Tehamana placed against a frieze of monstrous dream figures, reclining face down, buttocks exposed, body tense – a black, vulnerable, teenage Venus.

Pablo Picasso’s ‘Nude against a Red Background’ (1906)

As a compelling room of diverse works from 1905 to 1907 demonstrates, no significant prewar artist escaped the impact of Gauguin’s flamboyant primitivism: Picasso in the blocky yet tender “Nude Against a Red Background” and Braque in an angular “Study of a Nude”, which anticipate cubism; Henri Rousseau in “Eve”, a naive figure confronting a snake in a mock-tropical jungle; Georges Rouault’s savage prostitute glaring in a mirror, “Fallen Eve”; André Derain’s “Earthly Paradise” full of bulbous red/blue nudes dancing in a bacchanalian frenzy; Maurice de Vlaminck’s fauvist ceramic “Musician Eve”. Gauguin, said the painter Maurice Denis, “was, for our corrupted time, a kind of Poussin without classical culture, who instead of going to Rome to serenely study the antiques, got excited at the discovery …of Breton crosses and Maori idols …but like the great Poussin, he passionately loved simplicity, clarity, and encouraged us to try with frankness.”

Yet it is not just contemporary audiences who are suspicious of the authenticity of Gauguin’s frankness. Mounting his first exhibition of Tahitian paintings in 1895, the artist asked his friend the playwright August Strindberg to write the catalogue preface. Strindberg refused because “your paradise contains an Eve who is not my ideal”. So Gauguin wrote the preface himself, in the form of an accusatory letter to Strindberg: “Your civilised conception of Eve makes you, and almost all of us, misogynous; the ancient Eve, who frightens you in my studio, might well one day seem less bitter to you …The Eve of my choice is almost an animal.”

Paul Gauguin’s ‘And the Gold of Their Bodies’ (1901)

Surely the misogynistic fantasist is Gauguin himself, with an oeuvre rooted in fin-de-siècle noble savage tourism. Nevertheless, at a century’s distance, we can see that Strindberg and Gauguin were exploring the same territory: sexual madness, the impact of myth and dreams, and how a new informality of dramatic or pictorial structure might convey the power of the irrational mind. And so to Bonnard – interpreted here as Gauguin’s heir, bypassing the formal innovations of cubism to forge from the remnants of impressionism an art of memory and desire: unstable, tremulous, shimmering with finely woven textures and strange dramas of light and shade.

Bonnard audaciously reconciled Gauguin’s visionary interiority with the classical heritage. In the diptych-like post-coital scene “The man and the woman” (1900), Bonnard’s melancholy, intimiste version of the Fall, a screen divides the picture in two, separating Marthe, a classically modelled sculptural figure sitting on a rumpled bed, languidly playing with her cats, her delicate skin tones bathed in bright sunlight, from Bonnard – a scrawny, unflattering self-portrait, standing with a towel in the darkness, looking away from his wife.

Pierre Bonnard’s ‘Nude in Profile’ (1917)

Bonnard famously drew and painted tiny, high-breasted, nervous, agoraphobic Marthe, mostly in bed or in the bath, for half a century. In the pair of early sketches, fresh but strongly classicised, “Nude, Full-Face” and “In Profile, Nude, Head and Shoulders” (1898), lent from a private collection, Bonnard is learning the contours of her body, tracing its voluptuousness in brush and ink. Snapshots from 1900-01 – “Marthe sitting with her left hand on the back of her neck”, “Marthe from the rear, holding her nightdress” – bear witness both to his obsession with Marthe’s every gesture, and to his use of photographs as an aide-mémoire to paintings, which become increasingly about distance rather than directness, about how we recapture and reconstitute images.

By “Nude with Flannel, Three-Quarters View” (1908) and “Nude in Profile” (1917), Marthe’s slender form dissolves into blocks of free, expressive colour anchored by a soft scaffold of horizontals and verticals – door, window frame, bathroom tiles – as if she is enfolded into Bonnard’s idea of the very essence of painting. So a show which sets out to be political is most moving, finally, in recounting the personal: a record of a marriage, the waxing and waning of lust, remembrance of rapture enfolded into quotidian experience.

‘The Nude from Gauguin to Bonnard: Eve, Icon of Modernity?’ Musée Bonnard, Le Cannet, to November 3 www.museebonnard.fr

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