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.