pub­lic works

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Bron­wyn Wat­son

Pierre Bon­nard, Siesta (La Sieste) (1900). Collection Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria. Fel­ton Be­quest, 1949. On dis­play, NGV In­ter­na­tional, Mel­bourne. WHEN Pierre Bon­nard painted his lover in a lan­guorous pose on the bed in their apart­ment, he cre­ated one of his most sen­sual im­ages.

Siesta, painted in 1900, was renowned at the time in Parisian artis­tic cir­cles, and was once owned by Gertrude Stein. Later, it was bought by art his­to­rian Kenneth Clark, and in 1949 it was ac­quired for the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria, where it is one of its most pop­u­lar works.

The sub­ject of the paint­ing, Marthe Boursin, was Bon­nard’s muse. He had seen her on a tram in 1893 and per­suaded her to be his model. They lived to­gether for 30 years and mar­ried in 1925.

Boursin is the sub­ject of many of Bon­nard’s most in­ti­mate paint­ings.

In Siesta, she is de­picted in a pose made fa­mous by a clas­si­cal sculp­ture in the Lou­vre, Sleep­ing Hermaphrodi­tus.

When I visit NGV In­ter­na­tional, I am shown Siesta by the gallery’s cu­ra­tor, in­ter­na­tional art, Lau­rie Benson, who says that al­though it is a do­mes­tic scene it is a “highly erotic paint­ing”.

“This is clearly a post-coital woman who is the sub­ject of the paint­ing and it is about her sex­u­al­ity and her life,” Benson says. “It was painted at an in­ter­est­ing time in fem­i­nist his­tory, when women were be­ing at­tacked quite strongly in France.

“Un­mar­ried cou­ples were be­ing vil­i­fied in the press, so this was a po­lit­i­cal state­ment as well as a won­der­fully erotic im­age.”

Benson sug­gests that, al­though “slightly voyeuris­tic”, there is dig­nity to the fig­ure. “The way the fig­ure is posed, it is so re­laxed, we don’t feel like we are in­vad­ing so much. It is just a beau­ti­ful paint­ing of a fan­tas­tic, gor­geous fig­ure in to­tal re­pose. It is more of an in­ti­mate view of a re­la­tion­ship than any­thing smutty.”

Bon­nard’s Siesta is also part of a new ini­tia­tive at the NGV called Art as Ther­apy. Philoso­phers and au­thors Alain de Bot­ton and John Arm­strong have iden­ti­fied more than 60 works from the gallery’s collection to be in­cluded in the free, self-guided, spe­cially cu­rated pro­gram.

De Bot­ton and Arm­strong be­lieve that art has a ther­a­peu­tic ef­fect and can help solve a range of per­sonal prob­lems — but to do so you need to look at art in a dif­fer­ent way.

Arm­strong tells me that Siesta was cho­sen for the Art as Ther­apy pro­gram be­cause it is a pic­ture he has loved for a long time, and be­cause it is a pop­u­lar im­age. It shows an ideal of re­lax­ation and ease and sex­ual sim­plic­ity, and a lot of life is not like that.

He says the paint­ing is a re­minder about the anx­i­eties as­so­ci­ated with work and re­lax­ation. He be­lieves we need en­cour­age­ment to re­lax; that we can go to bed af­ter lunch and still be a good per­son.

“It shows, in a very beau­ti­ful way, an ideal that a lot of people, my­self in­cluded, find hard to reach in life,” Arm­strong says.

“It shows a con­tented state of re­lax­ation and sex­ual ease. It’s mov­ing, l think, be­cause we are rarely quite like that. So of­ten we are un­der pres­sure from work or re­la­tion­ship dif­fi­cul­ties. But also be­cause ly­ing around in the af­ter­noon has very lit­tle pres­tige.

“We don’t think it’s im­por­tant. Where I come from it’s seen as self-in­dul­gent, lazy and waste­ful. In­stead, you should be get­ting on with some­thing; weed­ing the gar­den, work­ing, clean­ing the kitchen, catch­ing up on emails.”

Oil on can­vas 109cm x 132cm

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