Pierre Bonnard is not a name as instantly recognisable as that of his French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist peer group, (hello Monet, Cezanne, Renoir, and Degas) but he certainly trod a similar path to them. After all, his first show was at Paul Durand-Ruel’s gallery – the French art dealer often credited with much of the success of this influential genre.
However, his work has only superficial similarities with this famous group of artists. Sure, at first glance, the brushstrokes and colours seem similar – the blur of blues and greens in the skies and water, the play of light and shadow, even in the adoption of Matisse-esque vibrant yellows and brilliant reds in fascinating interiors. But comparing Bonnard to these artists doesn’t do him many favours – in a few ways.
Fundamentally, Bonnard was not one for en plein air. Rather, he preferred to work on his compositions, play with memories, even use the relatively new medium of photography to reflect on ideas. The result of this are some fantastic interior scenes which are the highlights of this Tate retrospective.
Give Pierre Bonnard some lines to play with and he will conjure up some magic. Window ledges, door frames, sides of tables… these all became opportunities for him to challenge orthodox perspective and execution. Usual vanishing points and line of sights rejected for compositions that bring life to ordinary interior scenes. Bathers in bathtubs, women having tea, vases of flowers… these all become more interesting as our perspective is tiled – and they come alive with Bonnard’s masterful use of colour.
A great example of the way Bonnard’s skill with colour transforms and defines his work is one of the simplest paintings on display where a plain drawing room is transformed into one of the most magical scenes simply as a result of the inclusion of a gorgeously vibrant yellow wallpaper.
Indeed, yellow is a colour that Bonnard used terrifically, whether its in his striking view of bright flowers in the Studio of with Mimosas, 1939, or in the wonderful Basket of Bananas, 1926, where a simple still life becomes a glorious study in buttery shades.
Sadly, though this wonderful talent didn’t extend to exteriors.
Oh boy, the landscapes are not good.
This is where the gap between Pierre and his contemporaries is at its most awkward for, of course, the Impressionists wowed at the outdoors, but not Pierre. His views of gardens and trees are lumpy and bland. These scenes are utterly bereft of emotion or indeed any pleasing sensation. His greens are dour and blob-like, the flowers and shrubs meh and uninspiring.
The most evident example of this is an attempt at a version of Cezanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire which is so bad I found myself clenching my jaw.
It’s such an odd yet evident struggle. Maybe it really does come back to the lines again because Pierre is so much stronger in interiors. Maybe he needed that framework to work within and against. Maybe he also needed the presence of his wife, Marthe.
She was also a painter and the pair were frequent collaborators, her body often highly visible in his interiors. Painting nude women isn’t exactly news in art but, here, the two decided to use photography and painting to examine the female nude differently – what does a nude look like when the female body is immersed in bath water? What if it’s just the glimpse of a woman changing on the other side of a door? How does that change representation and therefore our observation?
The result are scenes of genuine intimacy, not necessarily sexual or even sensual, but of everyday life. Reality but with the beauty dial tuned up to ten.
And there is an undeniable poetic touch to Bonnard’s work. There is something of the snatched moments in his paintings. Sudden glimpses, shards of memories. There is something very affecting about them. I loved them. Well, his interiors.
Tate Modern, London, to May 6, 2019.
1 Pierre Bonnard (1867 –1947) Dining Room in the Country 1913. Oil on canvas 1645 x 2057 mm. Minneapolis Institute of Art
2 Pierre Bonnard (1867 –1947) Coffee (Le Café) 1915. Oil paint on canvas 730 x 1064 mm
3 Pierre Bonnard (1867 –1947) Summer 1917. Oil on canvas 2600 x 3400 mm. Fondation Marguerite et Aimé Maeght, Saint-Paul-France
4 Pierre Bonnard (1867 –1947) Nude in the Bath (Nu dans le bain)1936-8. Oil paint on canvas 930 x 1470 mm. Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris/ Roger-Viollet