Three Figures by the Sea, 2014 - 78 x 60 ins.
Sargy Mann and Pierre Bonnard by Charlotte Mann for Turps Magazine
Lately, I keep drifting into a memory of standing in a school playground as a rope swung by two friends smacks the ground in front of me.
The sensation is of standing, nodding to the smack of the rope and waiting for my brain to stop trying to work out how to jump in and let me be ‘jumped in’ by the rhythm so I can find myself skipping. I think there are two reasons why this memory is stalking me as I attempt this article: one because the story I have to tell starts in my childhood, and two, because it’s a story about approaching paintings as much with feet and lungs as eyes and brain.
For my eighth birthday fancy dress party, my father, Sargy Mann, convinced me to dress up as a Bonnard painting. I remember distinctly the lovely conspiratorial closeness of a project between the two of us. His enthusiasm was contagious, delicious, giddy without being manic. Alongside this I have a distinct memory of feeling watchful; not wanting to be overrun by his idea, keeping a check on how much I fed the situation. I remember his slight disappointment, a warm frustration with my reluctance to look at the reproductions he was showing me. I remember him talking about perspective and picture plane, me half-listening and consenting to have a large rectangle of stiff cardboard – with a gingham paper tablecloth glued to it – hanging around my neck. I hastily drew some plates on it without reference to the paintings and thus, I was sort of Marthe at the table in a Bonnard painting – but much more convincingly – an eight-year-old girl who was wary that this was all a bit weird, though I was fairly adept at balancing the need to have a shot at normality while relishing how glorious life can be out on a limb.
Two years earlier, in 1983, Sargy had applied for – and been granted – Arts Council funding to visit Bonnard’s home, Villa Le Bosquet in Le Cannet. This was the latest step in his journey of intense Bonnard research that had started in 1966 when the large retrospective at the Royal Academy had introduced Sargy and so many others to Bonnard’s art, and had thus exploded into life a love affair, having arguably as pivotal an effect on his whole being as that of meeting my mother Frances ten years later. Frances, incidentally, was also there at that Royal Academy show. She was then a fifteen-year-old who happened to have an inspired art teacher who took her class to wonderful exhibitions, mainly Op and Pop art (it was an exciting time to be in London). The Bonnard exhibition at the Academy was a rare exception in its delirious version of figuration and realism. It’s very possible that she saw her future husband in those high-ceilinged rooms. Sargy went well over twenty times. Perhaps she stood next to the awkward skinny man with bad skin who was drawing a Bonnard painting of Marthe in the bath. That Academy show was also a big influence in Frances’ life. She remembers loving it particularly, and specifically standing in front of a bath painting and feeling an uncanny and unexpected degree of physical empathy: “Oh god that feeling when one’s legs float up.” Precise memories of presence and sensation are interesting. It took her good few years to get to art school where she met Sargy, but it could be said to have in some way started here. She couldn’t have known that, seventeen years later, she would be lying naked in that very bath, breasts full of milk, being photographed by the father of that hungry child (their third) – the awkward skinny man with bad skin who happened to be standing next to her, utterly absorbed in the same ravishing painting she was looking at.
As I look at the slides taken on that trip to Villa Le Bosquet in 1983 and other reproductions that Sargy used in his Bonnard lectures – now projected in my studio – their glow illuminates work of my own that (despite my conscious efforts) undoubtedly holds the nested influences of my father and Bonnard. I find I’m thinking of Russian dolls and Chinese Whispers. Again it’s childhood games that fill my thoughts. The layers of influence: the interplay of some indefinable something being carried by these objects made of paint and canvas – flitting in and out of the living bodies of the human animals that engage their sensory selves with that object – and then feeling moved to encourage others to stand before that paint and let the thing it holds inhabit them. There’s something awe-inspiring about these chains of living creatures with something I’m hesitating to call an idea rippling through us. I’m also put in mind of that lovely Dennis Oppenheim piece Transfer Drawing, where he gets his son to draw on his back and he, in turn, draws the feeling of what’s being drawn on him. This slight extraordinary indefinable thing: a flickering, an essence, an energy… can, with the activity of an artist like Bonnard, be held in paint where it lies dormant until it is unleashed once more by the presence of a willing person: that congregation of fleshy life; that odd mixture of human and non-human cells that we call ourselves. We let this thing inhabit us and play out inside our bodies. The experience can’t but be different for each person and for each time; we can never know how different, in what way, and by how much.
In 1983 on that Arts Council funded trip, Sargy, Frances, their baby Susanna, and the photographer Tom Espley, arrived at Villa Le Bosquet where they met Michel Terrasse (Pierre Bonnard’s great-nephew and owner of Villa Le Bosquet at the time) and Pierrette Vernon, Marthe Bonnard’s great-niece who was also there to see the house. Sargy was, for the first time, walking through rooms that he had meticulously pieced together in his mind’s eye from the information held in Bonnard’s drawings and paintings. Michel Terrasse, who lived in Paris (though he had known Villa Le Bosquet all his life) commented incredulously as he watched Sargy explore the place: “this man knows my house better than I do and he’s never been here before.” Pierrette Vernon posed for a series of photographs that related to some of the many drawings and paintings that Bonnard had made of her great aunt fifty or so years earlier.
Sitting in Bonnard and Marthe’s bathroom, alone in a moment of stillness after the hectic activity of four people and a large camera tripod all squeezed into a very small room, Sargy sees the sunlight suddenly flooding in. A neat bright rectangle of light fell like an alien bath mat onto the floor tiles and revealed what must have been the moment that triggered Nude in Bathtub (1941-46). Of course, a dog likes to bask and would be drawn to that hot rectangular spotlight – those warm tiles – more than a damp bath mat. “Franny come back, get in the bath quick!” As my mother runs over and hastily takes off her clothes, Sargy is scrabbling around to find something – anything – dachshund-coloured, and bungs a teapot into that bath mat-imitating square of light. The light is moving fast. As they take more photos it’s moved up to the underside of the bath already. Sargy writes in his sketchbook “I did ‘see’ (just) virtually all the many variations of colour he has painted.”
I’m tempted to call the sunlight that day ‘Bonnard haunting the house, and putting on a show for this young man on a pilgrimage of sorts’ – showing him one of, as he put it, “Those moments when once again nature seduces me.” Bonnard once said to a young painter: “light is our god, young man, one day you will come to understand this.”
The 1983 research trip culminated, not in a book as he had been thinking it would, but in a large Bonnard exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. There is a deep logic to this. It made sense because the style of Sargy’s research was unconventionally far from having a narrative or linear character – the unavoidable nature of a book. He was loath to stray from the literal objects of the paintings and drawings themselves. It could be said that all his research was motivated by a desire to get as close to the work as he could – to “get all up in it.” His approach is that of climbing into paintings. I would hazard that neuroimaging of Sargy’s brain while he looked at a Bonnard painting of a room might have displayed similar results to that of neuroimaging his brain while he was walking in the physical room itself. The neurobiologist Semir Zeki was intrigued by Sargy and even chose Sargy’s essay Shared Experience for an edition of The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.
In retrospect, it feels absolutely right that Sargy’s years of research should find their apex in the development of an event that gave people the opportunity to be in a room with the actual objects Bonnard made, and to do so in such a way as to foreground the unassailable importance of each visitor’s individual (and I tentatively add) sacred bodily presence – not just in front of the paintings and drawings but in their whole lives, all the time.
Sargy’s approach to understanding Bonnard was both ‘topographical’ (as Timothy Hyman labels it in his 1998 Thames and Hudson monograph) and, in a more primary way, his approach to understanding Bonnard and all art was phenomenological. It both stemmed from, and led to, an understanding of his own consciousness, and the bewildering fact of consciousness itself. He trained himself to look at paintings in a way that allowed the artist’s presence to inhabit him via their work. I believe the topographical nature of his approach anchored him to that new and desired object (the artwork) and gave him a rigorous framework of thought that was able to act as a guard against the tendency to fill a void with pre-existing ideas and analysis. He wanted to be with the painting for as long as it took for the unexpected – that thing he didn’t know he didn’t know, that it had to offer – to inhabit him. He would let the paint dictate the way his eye led his body to respond and enjoy the resulting waves of experience washing through him. It’s likely this approach was partly made possible for him because of his having spent serious time in the practice of transcendental meditation. The most relevant thing is that this approach led not to a loss of self or to a hierarchical ordering of experience anchored to that of an expert other’s, but the very opposite: he found, as a result, that he discovered and experienced more and more of the transcendental in everyday life, away from the art of other people.
Sargy’s motivation behind that Hayward show was his wanting people to encounter the paintings in a context that drew attention to the simple, humble, external, and objective spatial facts that were the theatre that housed the trigger for their creation: what the taps of Bonnard’s bath were like; where a door opened in front of a radiator in an awkward way; that a view from one window enabled a glimpse of another; that opening a cupboard door cast an unusual shadow… not just so that people could behold the wonder of Bonnard’s art but with the hope that a visitor might, as a result, experience their own radiator, tap, cupboard door shadow… (and therefore, their experience of being themselves) as transportingly beautiful.
Sargy ended his essay in the catalogue of the Hayward Exhibition with these words about Nude in Bathtub – that painting of a bathing wife and sunbathing dog:
“The normal channels of experience have evolved to name and categorise, and that process necessarily blurs the uniqueness of things. The beauty and interest of the ‘not nature’ that art literally is, seems to flow into our brain through different channels which can bypass all this labelling and give us an experience of wonder and strangeness. In front of Nude in Bathtub, I am utterly seduced by the coloured design. A bit of my mind names a bath, a woman, two walls, a tiled floor, a dog, and protests that this is not what things look like. But the colour says come further, and the light is intense beyond memory, and for a fraction of a second tells of a Mediterranean landscape outside the window. The space becomes a miraculous, ordinary little bathroom, Bonnard’s bathroom, for an instant mine. And in this water, inches away, is the head of a woman, so alive in this light and space, as is the little dachshund sitting in the sun. ‘Let it be felt that the painter was there seeing things in their own light…’ wrote Bonnard. Marthe had died during the five years that he was painting this picture, and Bonnard himself was soon to die. Nothing lasts and the more beautiful it is the more poignant is the realisation of its transience.”
Sargy spent the last six years of his life in total blindness making large paintings of groups of figures silently inhabiting a room by the sea (sometimes a river, often an infinity pool). It is hot, the air is palpable, the sun is bright. The people are comfortable in their bodies and close to each other and the viewer.
In 2009, when he started these paintings, Sargy had been completely blind for four years. When I left home in 1997 my father decided to knock down lots of walls in our house, to make part of what had been my room a bathroom, and to turn the once bathroom into an extension of the landing at the top of the stairs. He called this new space The Little Sitting Room. On the walls of The Little Sitting Room he hung the many Bonnard drawings that he bought throughout his life, most of them at times when we had so little money anyone would think it pure craziness to do such a thing.
One day in 2009 standing in this ex-bathroom ‘looking’ towards the stairs leading down and away, Sargy finds his experience echoing, rhyming with another one, and realises that the topography of this extended landing has a surprising amount in common with the terrace and veranda of another place where Bonnard and Marthe lived.
Six hundred miles north of Villa Le Bosquet, with its famous bathroom, is a house with no bathroom. At Ma Roulotte, Marthe washes with water from a jug in a large circular metal dish on the floor. In the summer of 1975 Sargy and Frances have just met. They are driving through France and Italy camping, exploring, looking at art. At the moment they are trying to find Bonnard’s house: they have no proper address, just the name and the knowledge that it’s by the river, the Seine, somewhere near Vernon. Their car breaks down, and in the midday heat, a farmworker quietly watches the English tourists struggle from the shade at the edge of the road. My mother approaches and surprises him with her good French. She asks, more with embarrassment than hope, whether he knows of a house in the vicinity called Ma Roulotte. Now he’s even more surprised “Mais oui! La maison de Monsieur Bonnard?!” It’s twenty-eight years since Bonnard died and thirty-seven years since he sold Ma Roulotte and the man they have broken down next to used to be his gardener.
At Ma Roulotte my mother is offered the chance to bathe in that other (non) bath. The current owners inherited the metal dish when they bought the house. Frances isn’t keen. She’s twenty-five years old, on holiday with a man she met less than a year ago (Sargy was her tutor on the foundation course at Camberwell Art School) and now a man she’s only just met who happens to live here is all excited about her getting naked and doing some fake old fashioned washing. No way. She’s not up for that. What do exist are faded black and white polaroids of Frances leaning into a downstairs room of Ma Roulotte through a window by an open door. I hadn’t seen these photos until I started writing this essay, but they relate to a painting called Dining Room in the Country, which is the Bonnard I know and love the best.
When I was pregnant with my second child, in a Yoga class, our teacher (who was brilliant) handed out pens and paper and suggested we make a drawing that symbolised love to use as an anchor for a visual meditation. The suggestion had a chemical effect on me: it exasperated me, made me tense with irritation and anger until, swimming in the wrong hormones as I was, the idea of this Bonnard painting came floating through my mind like a life ring. When the time came, as I gave birth to Arthur, I disappeared into that painting. Its image glowed in my mind. My memory of Bonnard’s memory rendered in paint enabled me to let go of my sense of where my body began and ended, and let another one, Arthur come out of it.
It is also the specific painting that started Sargy off on his peculiarly topographical obsession with Bonnard’s work. Not long after encountering Bonnard’s paintings, Sargy was looking at a reproduction of Dining Room in the Country and found that the dark central diagonal in the top edge of the composition was nagging at him. He wanted to know what Bonnard had seen that had made him paint it like that. As a result, he started to look through the catalogue raisonné in the Camberwell Art School library, methodically gathering paintings of what appeared to be the same places together. He discovered that that the diagonal was one of the joists that held up the veranda that joined the terrace at Ma Roulotte, the place that his ‘little sitting room/landing.’ would one day remind him of.
Standing on this landing in Suffolk ‘looking’ out, his visual cortex newly untethered from the tyranny of constant optical input, his experience is suddenly charged with fluctuating memories of looking at Bonnard paintings of the view from the terrace at Ma Roulette and having looked out from that terrace himself. As this occurs to him he gently feels the walls to his side and the bannisters in front of him with his hands and the end of his blind man’s white stick and that touch triggers visual experience of the near space in his well-trained brain. The distance begins to form as a horizontal of water. A river? The sea? Seen from a space that is no longer Suffolk but somewhere hot and bright, a modest place of endless possibility.