Pierre Bonnard: the Colour of Memory

Vivid images of the French artist at Tate Modern impress John Westbrooke

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The works of the French painter Pierre Bonnard have always been found attractive. There were big artistic retrospectives in the early 1930s in Paris: hard times, people weren’t buying much. Those featuring Picasso and Matisse didn’t do well. But Bonnard’s, in 1933, was a hit.

He was thought of as a painter of happiness, for his colourful work depicting life indoors and out. He noted later that “he who sings is not always happy”, but that’s much the way he’s still seen.

The new Tate Modern exhibition shows how he got his reputation – and dates it to about 1912. Before that he’d been one of a Paris group of young rebels, the Nabis (“prophets”), but he started, like other painters before him, to spend time in the clear light of the south of France, and became aware of the Fauves (“wild animals”), painters like Matisse and Derain whose works were saturated in colour. He too began to experiment with a more vivid palette.

You can see the results in the 100 or so works on the Tate walls. In “Coffee”, a woman in yellow sits at a table; seen from above, the tablecloth is a bright red and white check. In “Woman at a Table”, it’s a striped dress and bowl that are red. “Dining Room in the Country” is half inside, half out: an open door is next to a large window, and light pours in from both, the red of the walls carried outside by a woman’s dress. Yet people in some works look almost transparent, like the deceased children who used to be painted into group portraits to complete the family.

“The Window” also looks out through a window in Bonnard’s rented flat in Le Cannet, near Cannes, to the dazzling white town below. He’d bought a yellow Renault in 1912 so he was able to travel widely, unfinished canvases rolled up in the back of the car.

He was just young enough to be called up for World War 1, but lucky that it didn’t happen; the army evidently didn’t need 50-year-olds (Matisse was also spared). But he bore witness to the war none the less: his home in Paris was within earshot of the guns. “A Village in Ruins Near Ham” (1917) shows devastation near the Somme. “Summer”, painted just after his visit to Ham, shows picnickers in what might be the same countryside, but this time full of trees and growth, in colours that are lush, even lurid.

But a great deal of his work is domestic. He was a shy man; in later years he’d sometimes pretend to be the gardener, telling callers that M. Bonnard was out. Some critics have blamed this on his long-time lover, Marthe de Méligny, accusing her of locking him away from his friends. Theirs does seem to have been a complicated relationship, but he lived with her, not always faithfully, for nearly 50 years, and painted her hundreds of times, so he saw something in her the critics didn’t. He finally married her in 1925 – at which point he found out her real name, Maria Boursin.

She wasn’t a well woman; she had a lot of ailments that might have been TB or mental problems, and she took a lot of water cures. He often painted her nude, in and out of the bath or washing down in a tub, usually looking much younger than she really was. An early canvas shows her in the background on the bed with cats while he stands naked in the foreground, but he mostly kept himself out of these pictures: even when she’s looking straight into a mirror and he must have been standing next to her, he’s invisible.

The two bath pictures here are among his best known, but they’re eerie. She lies flat on her back, the surface of the water robbing her of depth, her pallid skin making her look like a body in a sarcophagus. (Indeed, she’d been dead several years by the time he finished the last of the series.) In one of them, Bonnard steps back to surround her with brightly coloured walls and rugs; in the other we don’t see much beyond the cold white porcelain sides of the bath.

He did some self-portraits too, but he isn’t singing in these. His face is often in shadow; in one his eyes are almost black. He was not, it seems, the happiness man that audiences saw. When war came again he returned to Le Cannet, but life was restrictive. He painted views from his windows, or details of his rooms. Marthe died; he told his old friend Matisse of his grief, but Matisse was ill too. Bonnard still produced some dazzling work: in “The Studio with Mimosa”, the yellow tree outside his window spreads a rapturous glow inside. His final painting is here too, “Almond Tree in Blossom”: very weak by now, he got his nephew to brighten the grass.

It’s hard to locate Bonnard’s USP, the unique selling point that would make him stand out from others. Over a long life he worked in many styles. He described himself as “the last Impressionist”, and paintings such as “Nude Crouching in the Tub” have the sort of high angle and unaware subject that you see in Degas’s paintings of ballerinas. But he was born in 1867, a generation after, say, Monet. The Nabis were post-Impressionists, but he was probably the last of them too. He was clearly influenced by the Fauves a century ago, but the rectangular structures of some of his late interiors owe something to much later abstract impressionism.

The word “memory” in the exhibition title points to an unusual element: he did not, like the Impressionists, paint in front of his subject. He made sketches, took photos – some of these are on display, little contact prints a couple of inches long – but produced the painting in his studio.

It might take years, or even decades. “I leave it … I come back … I do not allow myself to be absorbed by the object,” he said, carrying canvases around with him as he travelled, reworking several at a time. His subjects are idealised recollections rather than reality. A war ruin suddenly blooms. A woman sheds years in the bath. People linger in his rooms like ghosts. He rethought paintings constantly, trying to find the best way to represent the original inspiration. Picasso called him “a potpourri of indecision” but what we see is the shimmer of memories being brought into the bright light of the present.

Pierre Bonnard: the Colour of Memory is at Tate Modern until 6 May 2019. Tickets £18; concessions are available and Uniqlo Tate Lates, one Friday a month, cost £10.