The C C Land Exhibition: Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory @ Tate Modern

This is the first major UK exhibition of Pierre Bonnard’s work in 20 years.

It brings together over 100 paintings, sketches and drawings, photos and some rare film footage of the great man, many being loans from galleries abroad so that, for fans, this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to revel in Bonnard’s strange, entrancing art, and for those of us who are less familiar with his work, an opportunity to educate ourselves.

Dining Room in the Country (1913) by Pierre Bonnard © Minneapolis Institute of Art

Dining Room in the Country (1913) by Pierre Bonnard © Minneapolis Institute of Art

The key facts that come over are:

  • colour although born in 1867, and a successful painter by the 1890s, it was only in 1912 that Bonnard undertook a major overhaul of his style, placing far more emphasis on colour and becoming much more relaxed about composition – hence this exhibition concentrates on the period 1912-47
  • memory although there are some very early, tiny photographs of himself and his partner naked, back around 1900, and one or two later on which he used to help him with composition – the key thing to bear in mind is that Bonnard worked from memory, recreating scenes in his mind
  • long working and this is related to the way he worked on paintings over very long periods of time, sometimes decades; the commentary picks out works which were painted, then repainted, then worked over, then reconfigured, for years and years (he started Young Woman in the Garden in 1921 but revisited it in 1946, repainting a large section of it was was working on it at his death)
  • domestic his subject matter is unremittingly low key and domestic, homely and interior: about four subjects dominate the works – looking out an open door or window into a garden; people round a dining room table; his wife in the bath or washing in a tub; a naked woman reflected in a mirror
Nude in an Interior (c. 1935) © National Gallery of Art, Washington, USA

Nude in an Interior (c. 1935) © National Gallery of Art, Washington, USA

Overcoming your prejudices

If writing this blog has taught me anything about myself it is that I like disegno, the art of drawing, the magical creation of shapes and forms and depth and weight on two-dimensional paper or canvas through the use of confident, incisive lines.

Therefore, I had to make a conscious effort not to judge Bonnard by what I like, but to relax and try and let him show me new ways to make painting. What I mean is, Bonnard is the opposite of my usual taste. There isn’t a straight line or regular geometric shape in sight. Instead the lines and frames are there in order to let the colour run riot.

If you look at Dining Room in the Country (1913) there are, in fact, quite a few geometric objects which ought to have straight lines – the door frame and open door, the window frame and open window. But quite obviously he is not interested in photographic accuracy – all the lines are there in order to create an illusion of three dimensional space, in which something else is going on.

I always listen to the audioguides at exhibitions. Sometimes they are bossy, sometimes briskly authoritative. I found the commentary on Bonnard’s paintings by curator Matthew Gale struck just the right note of hesitancy: something is quite clearly going on, but it regularly takes quite a lot of looking to figure out precisely what.

Gale tells us it is a characteristic of Bonnard’s paintings that the more you look, the more you begin to notice half-buried details. It’s not as if any of these provide the key, as if they were Renaissance works packed with arcane symbolism. The opposite. Nothing is arcane about them. A woman is lying in a bath. Not very difficult to parse or understand. And yet… her head is at an inconvenient angle compared to the rest of her body. Her right leg is unrealistically straight with, apparently, no knee. The tiles beside the bath display an amazing richness of colour, an embarrassment of gold and orange, and then the tiles beneath the bath have stopped being accurate representations of an actual floor and have become a pattern of turquoise squares with a pattering of gold towards the right.

Nude in the Bath (1936-8) by Pierre Bonnard © Musée d'Art moderne de la Ville de Paris/ Roger-Viollet

Nude in the Bath (1936-8) by Pierre Bonnard © Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris/ Roger-Viollet

Should you be put off the painting by the apparently ‘bad’ draughtsmanship of the human body? Or should you let yourself be dazzled by the gorgeousness of the colour and the entrancing half-abstract design?

That is the question I found myself asking again and again as I faced paintings with almost deliberately poor drawing and composition – and yet dazzling displays of gorgeous colour.

Possibly it could be put as an equation: where colour triumphs you are prepared to overlook dodgy elements in the design; but in other compositions the poor draughtsmanship predominates and so, on balance, I didn’t like.

Here’s an example which hangs in the balance, Coffee from 1915. Various elements are – judged purely by their accuracy, their verisimilitude, their anatomical or perspectival correctness – less than good, for example the right arm of the person putting something on the table, let alone his or her hand. Yuk. Clumsy. Gauche. The dog is sweet but not that well done. What’s happened to the woman in yellow’s left hand?

Coffee (1915) by Pierre Bonnard © Tate

Coffee (1915) by Pierre Bonnard © Tate

And yet… clearly this is a strong and powerful painting. it makes a big impression, for maybe two reasons: dominant is the red and white pattern of the tablecloth which sets slightly slapdash tone, in which colour and vividness is more important than accuracy; and then it is obviously catching a mood, the dog and the woman – although badly drawn – nonetheless conveying a calming, homely, domestic mood. These are the kind of paintings which led to him being called an ‘Intimist’.

So I think Coffee supports my thesis that, in Bonnard’s best paintings, colour and mood overcome weaknesses in depiction. And then there is that other element, which I quoted Matthew Gale referring to, the way that. The more you look at it, the more you become aware of odd details, the more drawn in you find yourself. Thus in the commentary for this painting, Gale candidly tells us that ‘no-one knows’ what the band of design down the right hand side of the canvas is: it doesn’t look like it represents anything ‘in’ the picture space; is it purely decorative?

Many of the paintings are cut off at edges like this, clipped at the edges and sides, creating the sense of something overheard and accidentally seen, helping to shape that sense of closeness and intimacy.

Mysterious moments in time

The dominance of colour and visual impact over strict, literal accuracy, brings us to the notion that Bonnard was interested in capturing moments in time, moments like (to describe the four paintings above) a woman looking in at an open window, a woman glimpsed fixing up her hair, lying in a leisurely cooling bath, or sipping a cup of coffee while the dog sits up at the table.

Certainly this notion, of intimate moments captured and then meditated on, turned over in the painter’s memory and converted, over a long period of time, into essays in colour and composition, fits the many, many paintings of naked women, and the recurring themes of – naked woman in front of mirror, naked woman in bath, dressed woman at table.

Nude before a mirror by Pierre Bonnard (1923)

Nude before a mirror by Pierre Bonnard (1923)

Psychologising

And it’s about here that you need to know that Bonnard had a small but turbulent love life. For most of his life his partner was Marthe de Méligny. They lived together for thirty or so years before marrying in 1925. So far, so idyllic. But for the two years before the marriage Bonnard had been having an affair with Renée Monchaty, who sometimes modelled for him. They visited Rome together in 1921, an experience memorialised in several paintings. He even proposed to her in 1923, but then broke off the engagement. When Renée learned that Bonnard had married de Méligny, she killed herself. Hmm. Not quite so idyllic as it all first seemed.

And then we learn that de Méligny herself suffered from a number of psychological illnesses, some biographers interpreting it as a form of paranoia. Certainly she was reclusive and disliked company. Bonnard wrote to a friend in 1930:

For quite some time now I have been living a very secluded life as Marthe has become completely anti-social and I am obliged to avoid all contact with other people.

So the theme of domestic intimacy, of just the one figure in so many of the paintings, takes on a slightly more troubled tone.

Moreover, as part of the treatment for her complaints, or maybe a symptom of her compulsions, Marthe took baths and washed herself several times a day.

Ah. Now the countless paintings of a woman in a bath or a woman naked in front of a mirror fiddling with her hair take on a new and maybe troubling significance. Without much effort you can to interpret the mirrors as symbolic of a divided self, of a mind split into unhappy fragments, all the more so because of Bonnard’s habit of cropping the mirrors themselves (so you rarely see the entire mirror) and of showing the reflected image as itself cropped and ‘mutilated’.

So the scope is there, if you like psychological interpretations, to make quite a lot out of the ‘cramped’ interiors’, the woman divided against herself, the woman as passive object of the male gaze in the bath tub, and so on. (You might even notice, as I did, that more often than not the nude woman is wearing white high-heeled shoes. Everyone to their own fetish.)

But, in the painting above, Nude before a mirror, seeing it in the flesh, much more vibrant and garish than in this flattened reproduction, what grabbed my attention was the black circles drawn on the curtains at the top right. And it took me a while to realise that the green rectangle half way up the right of the picture is the end of a bed, and that the other colourful patches must be clothes placed on the bed.

In other words, once I had gotten over a) my standard heterosexual response to seeing a naked woman with a slender shapely bare legs and bum, and b) once I’d got over the unhappy squat shape of her head, and stopped worrying about the stumpy depiction of her left arm and hand (i.e. Bonnard’s shortcomings as a draughtsman) – then I was ready c) to take in the whole image as an exercise in colour, laid out in strange and beguiling composition (the picture is, once you start looking, really cluttered with angles and objects and stuff, which become slowly more puzzling and beguiling the longer you look at it.)

In other words, if you make the effort to overlook some shortcomings, if you suspend judgement, if you slow your mind right down, you find yourself becoming absorbed in the play of colour and composition, drawn in, absorbed and, if you really let go… entranced.

Gardens

But it wasn’t all baths and mirrors; Bonnard also painted gardens, of his home in the village of Vernonnet in Normandy and at his mother’s home at le Grand-Lemps in the Daupiné in south-east France then, from 1926, at the house he bought in the village of Le Cannet. From this date onwards he spent more and more time in the south, depicting the explosive impact of the Mediterranean light.

Take this work from late in his life, The Garden 1936.  It is a dazzling explosion of colour and, once again, as Matthew Gale suggested, repays prolonged looking. As to trivial details, can you see the two pairs of pigeons, two brown at the back of the path, two white at the front? But it’s really the purely painterly elements, like the vertical tree trunk on the right contrasted with the green diagonal plant stem, or the strange almost square chunk of sand at the top right decorated with orange blobs. Words (as you can tell) can’t really convey the richness of the visual impact.

The Garden (1936) by Pierre Bonnard © Musée d'Art moderne de la Ville de Paris/ Roger-Viollet

The Garden (1936) by Pierre Bonnard © Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris/ Roger-Viollet

Other themes

Because it is so comprehensive the exhibition has space to explore other themes (i.e. show a number of paintings of other subjects in other styles).

Self portraits These include three or more of his later self-portraits which are sombre and grim, very unlike the blazing colour of the domestic interiors and gardens.

War and crowd scenes There’s also a roomful of works from the Great War, showing a ruined village and some crowd scenes from Paris, which I thought were complete fails – where the drabness of the colours (brown and black) failed to compensate for his bad or ugly draughtsmanship. They have a room to themselves designed to show that he was more than just bathrooms and gardens: but they don’t really convince. When Bonnard goes wrong he really goes wrong.

The Fourteenth of July 1918 by Pierre Bonnard. Private collection

The Fourteenth of July 1918 by Pierre Bonnard. Private collection

Bonnard isn’t consistently brilliant. Each painting needs to be looked at and absorbed on its ow merit, and since there’s over 100 pictures and sketches and photos, that’s a lot of time and a lot of attention required.

Half a dozen of them really made me stop, sit down, and just stare… and the more I looked, the more entranced I became. It is easy to criticise Bonnard’s weak points, but it’s harder to put into words the really powerful, strong, sucking impact the best of his paintings have.

Balcony at Vernonnet by Pierre Bonnard

Balcony at Vernonnet by Pierre Bonnard

I found that Bonnard’s paintings did something which virtually all curators claim for their artists but which few ever really do: they made me see in a whole new way; see, think and feel about paintings in a more open, receptive and joyful way than I’m used to. The best of them – the gardens, baths, open windows and women at mirrors – made me feel like I was seeing, experiencing colour and the world around me – an a completely new way.

I was converted.

Video

I’m getting into the habit of seeking out the video reviews made by Visiting London Guide. They are always longer (two and a half minutes) than the galleries’ official promotional videos (generally thirty seconds) and, with their hand-held style, they give you a better idea of not just what the pictures look like, but of the overall hang and the arrangement of the rooms.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

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