Sunday, October 14, 2012

Children Leaving School

Pierre Bonnard, Children Leaving School (ca. 1895)
I was lucky to have attended college (University of Maryland) near Washington D.C. and its art galleries and museums. I minored in Art History, and I remember clearly when my 19th Century European Art teacher informed us, "We will not look at any art in this class. We will only be looking at reproductions of art." Get yourself to the galleries, he said. One of my early favorite paintings was Pierre Bonnard's Children Leaving School, which I'd first seen in an art book somewhere. I was pysched when I learned that the National Gallery of Art in Washington owned the small painting, and that I could request that they retrieve it from storage for me to study for a class paper I was writing. I drove to the Mall on a weekday (did I cut classes? Probably), entered the research annex of the Gallery, and sat as an employee wheeled out the painting to me on a small table. The piece was behind a curtain, which the employee drew aside. I was allowed a small amount of time with the painting, I think a half hour, and I was required to leave a foot or so of space between the painting and me.

I've been looking at Children Leaving School for years and can look at it forever. What I love are the little dark blobs of kids, the smudges of head-down disconsolance which feel so accurate to me. Bonnard was an illustrator and print maker as well as a painter, and he had an eye for stark figures, contrasts, movement. Apparently, he rarely painted "from life" but from drawings and, sometimes, photographs, relying on notes in his studio. Does that explain the evocative mood in Children Leaving School, that Bonnard painted from memory, first recollected, than drawn? It certainly accounts for movement-and-stasis (this happened, this happens) and the abstraction, the formal unity among the kids whose small sizes are contrasted with the vertical authority of the adult figure, who also looks melancholy. There's something about the obliteration of the environment—or of the environment brutally reduced to blur and sensation—that feels so common to my afternoons leaving school, tired of playground politics, classroom melodramas and my own prickly and awful self-consciousness. The faceless kids look so little and tired! I have to guard against sentimentality and preciousness (how many times have I written that) and the faux content of nostalgia. Children Leaving School is not a great work because it brings me back, it's a great work because it brings me in, to black and beige adolescence, of that somehow-sad single red scarf on the one kid for which, in my telling, he was either lauded or persecuted. There it is, ringing its redness across the century, a bright scarlet hope, or a warning light. Look at the kid in the front and the kid straggling in the back: such cute forlornness, if there's such a thing. Little wrapped bundles of inward-looking childishness we leave behind and carry with us forever.

1 comment:

Richard Gilbert said...

Neat, Joe. I see them all, including the adult, looking at or for something that's caught their attention. That is, the painter caught a moment when, freed from school, they could look and see. Only lasted minutes, at most.