Suffering from SAD (seasonal affective disorder)? Pierre Bonnard has the remedy.
‘The C C Land Exhibition: Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory’
Tate Modern, 23 Jan 2019 - 6 May 2019
In this bleak, monotonous winter and in these wretched, uncertain times you wouldn’t be blamed for dreaming of a bright place in the sunshine, nor would you be blamed for the incessant *ping* that plagues your inbox with yet another expensive and out of reach holiday deal. Fortunately, the Tate Modern has curated the antidote. Across the cold and muddy waters of the Thames, Bonnard’s vivid oil paintings of the never-ending French summer landscape and his balmy domestic interiors will provide you with the perfect respite from those seasonal blues.
Despite the extraordinary vitality and complexity of Bonnard’s colour palette, his unique voice was hushed by his Impressionist predecessors and boisterous Modernist contemporaries such as Gauguin and Picasso. Deemed ‘the greatest of us all’ by artist and close friend Henri Matisse, Bonnard’s work is sadly still relatively unknown to the average art lover. The first major Bonnard exhibition in the UK in 20 years, the Tate’s retrospective attempts to readdress this oversight casting a new light on the naturally shy yet enigmatic artist. Spanning over forty years of Bonnard’s career - starting in 1912 as his signature style began to mature until his death in 1947 - the exhibition brings together over 100 expressive oil paintings, drawings and photographs on loan from museums and private collections.
The bringing together of these works however is not a revelatory idea in the international context. Previously, I was able to view the 2015 ‘Pierre Bonnard: ‘Peindre L’Arcadie’ (translation: ‘Painting Arcadia’) show, curated by the Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Referring to perfect visions of pastoralism, the exhibition chose to focus on Bonnard’s sumptuous landscapes including his earlier decorative panels inspired by Japanese kakemono hanging scrolls. Although the thematic approach was simplistic and explored one angle - the quest for an aesthetic ideal in landscape - Bonnard’s paintings proved far more complex than the exhibition gave him credit for. This year the Tate delves into the diverse roles of colour and memory, exploring 13 rooms of bounteous sentiment and sun-warmed nostalgia.
Before stepping into the gallery the ticket entrance sets the tone for the exhibit by providing a monumental photo mural of Bonnard’s ‘The Garden’, 1936. Adjusted to the dreary pallet of London’s underground your eyes squint and blink by the imposition of colour. The enlarged details emphasise the diversity of his palette - ranging from soft lilac to terracotta orange and indigo blue to cadmium red. The wall feels like a visual warmup in preparation for what hangs inside. Nicknamed ‘les fauves’ (the wild beasts) the artists Matisse and André Derain pioneered the use of raw colours in the creative hub of Paris. Preferring the solitude and slow-pace of the countryside Bonnard felt compelled and began to develop his own individual approach to colour. Bonnard wrote in a letter, ‘Certainly colour had carried me away. I sacrificed form to it almost unconsciously.’ Placing such a fervent emphasis on the need to experience and express in colour, Bonnard was able to challenge traditional rules in a multitude of hues and pigments.
Most notably, the expansive canvas of ‘Summer’, 1917 (Room 3) depicts blue stained children playing in the shade of a wooded landscape whilst two orange-hue women bask in the golden hour of day. The painting, measuring over three meters wide, hangs with ease on the large and ceremoniously pompous walls of the Tate. Unable to view the sweeping landscape as a whole the painting transforms the shallow gallery into a panoramic ‘view point’. Despite the frustrations of orientating around the crowds - ironically, a common feeling for the summer tourist - the audience are invited to stand and contemplate the nostalgic scene, absorbing every warm dappled leaf and radiant body. Bonnard was not oblivious to the war at this time, describing scenes of destruction in ‘A Village in Ruins Near Ham’ 1917 (Room 4), however in this same year he seems to share an alternative vision of hope. In the seemingly rebellious use of colour there is however law and order. Equipped with the rules of colour theory Bonnard was able to combine warm and cold complimentary colours. By enhancing the billowing trees in a range of ultramarine blues and exaggerating the summer meadow in an acidic orange, Bonnard was able to harmonise colour in a way that still feels shockingly contemporary.
It is clear that Bonnard struggled with proportion and facial features. There is a contrasting uncertainty in the mottled pink faces and over extended limbs of his figures. Bonnard studied law and briefly trained as a barrister so was never formally trained in the classical academic style of painting. Attending a couple of classes at the École des Beaux's Arts in Paris, Bonnard found that he preferred to work from drawings and memory. As seen in the preparatory sketches for ‘The Bowl of Milk’, 1919 (Room 5) Bonnard takes inspiration from the small interactions and rituals of daily life. Entwined in the complexity of colour and composition your eyes find a way to forgive these inaccuracies. In a technology conscious society where memory has been replaced with the iPhone to provide visual prompts, Bonnard’s ability to translate memory into paintings seems all the more impressive.
Very rarely does contemporary art provide this strand of nostalgia and vitality. Instead we are often faced with minimalist, sterile work that relies too heavily on the power of jargon. In an art world that can feel so exclusive and alienating Bonnard’s paintings roar softly in the austere white spaces of the Tate. Bonnard’s intimate scenes of domestic life provides us respite from the uncertainty of political affairs. Do I have to say it? Brexit. Perhaps for Bonnard, his focus on the gentleness of everyday scenarios and objects acted as an escapism from the unpredictability that plagued the years surrounding the world wars. Curator and head of displays at Tate Modern, Matthew Gale, said, ‘His paintings really reward very close and extended scrutiny.’ For example 'Still Life with Bouquet of Flowers’, 1930 (Room 10) encourages you to look amongst Bonnard’s possessions like a curious and somewhat nosey house guest. You imagine strolling from room to room, sipping from a citron pressé as you go. Casually you sift through a pile of loose sketches on the study table revealing a book, the ‘Venus of Cyrene’. A particular favourite of Pierre’s you wonder? Bonnard’s painting subtly reminds us of the man and life behind the canvas.
In particular, behind and on that canvas was Marthe de Méligny. Resisting the traditional conventions of the time, Bonnard and Marthe lived as a couple for thirty years before marrying in 1925. For the majority of their relationship Bonnard used Marthe as his principle model, appearing in his photography and drawings (Room 2) and most famously his bathroom scenes. A complex character, Marthe suffered from various physical ailments which required her to take regularly prescribed baths. In John Richardson’s review of the Tate’s last Bonnard exhibition in 1998, he cruelly describes Marthe as the ‘amphibious wife’. Semi-submerged and soaking, Bonnard’s tender depiction of Marthe in ‘Nude in the Bath’ 1936 (Room 11) is serenely intimate yet claustrophobic. There is an underlying tone of anxiety - the porcelain tub embraces her pale figure like a sarcophagus, priming her body for death.
Critics of the time avoided the more sombre aspects of Bonnard’s paintings, describing him as a ‘painter of happiness.’ Bonnard later noted, ‘he who sings is not always happy.’ Bonnard was to live through two world wars, the death of his mother, the suicide of his mistress and the long-term illness and subsequent death of his wife Marthe. The consequence of these events are shown in the melancholic self-portraits of the artist. ‘The Boxer’ 1931 (Room 10) confronts the artist in the reflection of a mirror. Without his pallet and paintbrush he is unarmed with firsts raised, a shadow falling across a tense and anxious face. Situated towards the end of the exhibition, these important and juxtaposed self-portraits remind us that even in Bonnard’s eternal summer there is human frailty and pain. Not all experience and memory are summoned from joyous occasion and it would be easy to misdiagnose Bonnard’s bright and optimistic work exclusively to the realm of unadulterated bliss. Fortunately, the Tate avoids sensationalising these paintings through periodic contextual reminders.
‘The Colour of Memory’ successfully explores the man behind the painting. From the vivacious landscapes that dominate the Tate’s walls with generous dollops of colour, to the small provincial paintings that gently ask to be heard. The exhibition asks us to understand the artist’s life, with all the joy and inevitable uncertainties, in order to understand Bonnard’s purity of expression. Bonnard reminds us that in the midst of winter there is an endless summer.
The Musée Saint Grégoire sits quietly amongst the Médiéval cobbled streets and steeply laid steps of Cordes Sur Ciel, France. The gallery is ran by passionate and knowledgable Australian couple W. John, an accomplished artist in his own right, and Yvonne Hackwell. The Musée holds within it’s 4 floors an extensive collection of Aboriginal paintings and crafts alongside sculptures by son Andrew Hackwell and surrealist paintings by the artist Morris Kennedy’s (1920 - 2008). The majority of visits are organised by appointment so that the Musée can guarantee a private view and tour from the collectors themselves.
I reflected on my expectations for the space and work before ringing the bell to the Musée's stone arched doorway. Cordes Sur Ciel’s summer season sees it’s main streets lined with one-roomed art galleries which maintain the shabby charm of the French countryside while exhibiting the quaint local abstracts and small crafts. Furthermore, the minimal design of the Musée's official website (http://www.museesaintgregoire.com) combined with my lack of experience in Australian aboriginal art left me ashamedly with little or no clue of what to expect. However, it would be the Musée’s enigma that would lead to a pleasurable experience: ‘ignorance was bliss.’
Entering the Musée on the third floor, I was struck by the sheer scale of the building as emphasised by its open plan interior. Contemporary stairs lined with original paintings, sculptures and crafts lead up towards a conference mezzanine, whilst perilously placed beneath my feet two parallel glass floors revealed the intriguing first and second floor galleries some 30 feet below. The architecture alone preserves the soul of the Médiéval stone whilst integrating the unapologetic boldness of modern steel structure. Perhaps this is why Andrew Hackwell’s metallic bird and lizard sculptures stand so comfortably within the space. Engineered from scrap metal parts, the beautifully crafted utopian cockerels were a particular favourite, their hand-adjustable wings, screw-bolt feet, and metallic heads resonating strongly with the character of the French countryside and the modernity of the Musée.
The private tour led us down the fluorescent orange glow of the staircase, a futuristic homage to Australia’s sun baked outback perhaps. Dedicated to The Hackwell Collection, the ground floor showcases chronologically an extensive 25 year collection of Aboriginal ‘dot’ paintings on bark, scrap material and Western introduced canvas. Supported by John’s enthusiasm and invaluable descriptions of the indigenous artists, materials, symbolism and cultural narratives, the paintings began to transform from abstraction into visual maps of community spirit and optimism. A particular favourite, painted by female artist Ada Bird Petyarre (1930 - 2009) depicted the sacred design of her ceremonial tattoos amongst her hanging breasts. The minimalist black and white painting, drawn out with a quick self-assuredness, felt deeply expressive and personal in its simplicity. Overall I was struck by the modernity of the collection. The indigenous artists independently discovered without prior knowledge of Western contemporary ‘greats’, the visual impacts expressive yet simple mark-making can achieve when combined with a limited colour palette. For example, Bai Bai Napangarti’s striking yellow-ochre painting highly resembled the work of Joan Miro, with her use of primary colour and attention to shape. For many Western abstract painters it took years of brave consideration to master the concept of ‘less is more’, whilst oversees in the middle of an isolated village, with no formal arts education, these same conclusions were being drawn.
The surreal aesthetic of Morris Kennedy’s paintings garishly fill the second floor space, depicting symbolic visions of a deeply unhappy mind. Invasions of monstrous creatures in past and future landscapes, his work cannot be described as ‘pretty’ nor should they be. Suffering from mental illness with periodic break downs, Kennedy found sanctuary in his remote studio in the Australian bush, desperately pressing his demons into canvas before discarding them to the outback. Found in a neglected shed and riddled with rot and webs, John and Yvonne salvaged this prolific collection for restoration and display.
The entirety of the Musée’s collection holds the same personal measure of care in its selection and curation. This is perhaps more obvious with the Aboriginal paintings, sculpture and crafts. Working and advocating for these indigenous tribes first-hand, John and Yvonne have created a deeply personal and thoughtful collection. You can feel their respect for the people and the culture, however with a refreshing lack of over-reverence. For example, led to an unceremonious pile of unframed canvas, John confidently whipped, ruffled and folded each piece aside revealing the bright and traditional patterns of the paintings below. He touched them like home, with a deserved familiarity. That is what the Médiéval Musée is to this work - a home from home.
If you’re ever in Cordes Sur Ciel the Musée Saint Grégoire is a must see. To organise a tour visit http://www.museesaintgregoire.com or their Facebook page at Musée Saint Grégoire.
For accommodation: http://www.labellevuegite.com/