‘The Fourteenth of July’ 1918, oil paint on canvas, 595 x 853 mm, private collection

The Great Colourist

25th January 2019

Tate Modern’s first major exhibition of the year examines the work of the French artist Pierre Bonnard. Jack Watkins went along to have a look…

Pierre Bonnard has been called a lot of names over the years. To some he is the last of the Impressionists, reflecting the way he doggedly carried on working well into the 20th century, right up to his death, aged 79, in 1947. For others, he is the great colourist, the radiance of his palette on a par with that of his more widely celebrated French compatriot Henri Matisse. Because he was a founder member of a Post-Impressionist group of artists dubbed the Les Nabis (as in the philosophers, or seers), he has often been referred to as a Symbolist. Yet the fact that, rather than following the Symbolist interest in obscure objects, he preferred to paint and draw scenes from ordinary everyday life, has led to him also being known as an Intimist.

Perhaps Tate Modern’s exhibition title gives a better clue of what to expect. The Colour of Memory alludes to Bonnard’s delight in glorious harmonies of colour and his preferred way of painting from memory, back in his studio, referring only to notes, or sketches, to capture the spirit of some fondly recalled passing moment. He was, apparently, so obsessed with colour that if he found a shade that especially took his fancy, he’d return to older paintings and add dabs here and there of his favourite new shade. On one occasion, he attended a museum with his pal and fellow member of Les Nabis, Edouard Vuillard, with whom he for a time shared a studio in Montmartre, and told him to distract the attendant while he touched up one of his older works hanging in the gallery.

Rarely did he consider a work finished, constantly trying to look at his work objectively. “I leave it….I come back…I do not let myself become absorbed by the object itself,, ” he said. The first painting you will see in the show, Young Women in the Garden, is cited as one of the most extreme examples of a painting made across a long stretch of years. Bonnard worked on it between 1921 to 1923, before setting the canvas to one side and then revisiting it again in 1945-46. I suspect Bonnard used his paintings the way some people use a diary, returning to them as a way of rediscovering and reliving in their mind the original experiences through the thoughts they noted down or, in Bonnard’s case, painted or drew. His unusual method carried over into the way he would work from several canvasses all at the same time, each one hanging from the wall of his studio.

Bonnard was born in 1867 in a Paris suburb, the son of a civil servant. He studied law and had brief experience as a practising barrister before taking up art classes in the latter 1880s. Friends described him of being of ‘quiet temperament’, and unobtrusively independent. Photos and some rare film footage in the exhibition suggest the same, a slight, neatly dressed, inoffensive looking man in round rimmed glasses, not unlike a slenderer version of Clement Attlee.

Bonnard’s first commercial breakthrough as an artist had come in the 1890s with decorative pieces. However, the Tate Modern show effectively takes up the story from 1912, by which time exploring the potentialities of colour became his overriding concern. Buying his first automobile around this time, he used it to explore the countryside around Paris and Normandy. His was a stylist melange of Impressionistic fog and a somewhat less gharish, poor man’s Paul Gauguin. Window open onto the Seine was not untypical, but as the First World War arrived, German guns getting to within 30miles of Paris by the summer of 1914, he didn’t shirk the impact on the landscape. A Ruined Village Near Ham, painted in 1917, tried to record the legacy of the bleak struggle along the Somme. The broken countryside he depicted, the stumps of blasted trees, the soldiers lost in the mud, is not dissimilar to that shown in the work of the British war artist Paul Nash, though the latter’s paintings are vastly superior, perhaps reflecting the fact that Nash was present at the Western Front in a way Bonnard, who didn’t enlist, never was.

After the war, Bonnard visited Claude Monet at Giverny, apparently finding inspiration for the latter’s water-lily canvases for his own minor key nature studies inspired by the setting of his own house at Veronnet. A favoured approach was to show the relationship between the interior, man-made, environment and the natural, outside environment, as seen though a window or door, as in Dining Room in the Country, or The Door Opening onto the Garden.

By the late 1920s, Bonnard had moved permanently to the South of France, to which, understandably enough, he had long been drawn. His paintings featured ever warmer light and richer shades of orange, reds and yellows. He came to be seen as the ‘painter of happiness’. When a major exhibition devoted to his work was held in Paris in 1933, during the Depression, and at a time when political extremism was gaining an increasing foothold across Europe, critics hailed his colourful canvasses as offering a message of hope.

As with so many artists, his absorption with his craft seemed only to grow stronger with age. “I am just beginning to understand what it is to paint,” he reflected. “A painter should have two lives, one in which to learn, and one in which to practice the art.” He still took his time, too. The Studio with Mimosa was produced over seven years, between 1939 and 1946, the mimosa presented as an explosion of yellow seen from the painter’s studio window. On the face of it, it is not a picture to grab you, but the accurate observation of the scene wasn’t Bonnard’s purpose. Instead, the heightened combination of colour was inspired by what he called ‘the first emotion’ prompted by the scene.

The last picture in the show, The Almond Tree, which he could see from his bedroom window, was also Bonnard’s last. “Every spring it forces me to paint it,” he had said. When he was too weak to finish it, he asked his nephew to alter the colour of a patch of grass in the foreground from green to yellow, the tinkerman right up to the end.

What to make of Bonnard? The Impressionist tag would dog even after death. At a retrospective held in Paris the same year of his passing, a critic wrote that, in his work ‘Impressionism becomes insipid and falls into decline.’ A disgusted Matisse immediately retorted that Bonnard was ‘a great artist for our time and, naturally, for posterity.’ I would say he was a painter’s painter, or one for the connoisseurs. Perhaps anticipating this reaction, Tate Modern has been planning ‘slow looking’ sessions for the exhibition, curator Matthew Gale being at pains to stress Bonnard’s painting “really rewards very loose and extended scrutiny.” There’s nothing in here that really created a wow moment for me, nothing that dragged me back for more looks. Bonnard didn’t deal in great scenes or spectacular locations, and seems to have been obsessed by depicting people in the bath. The colours are nice though.

‘The Colour of Memory’ runs until 6 May 2019 at the Tate Modern, Bankside, London • www.tate.org.uk/visit/tate-modern

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