A sweeping exhibition at the Tate Modern reintroduces Pierre Bonnard as a great painter of the 20th century.
In 1911, Pierre Bonnard bought a flashy car. The French painter was entering his mid-40s, and he had experienced nearly 15 years of success in the art world. In the previous year alone he had shown in several cities throughout Europe, completed four panels for pianist and woman-about-town Misia Sert, and started a triptych for Russian collector Ivan Morosov. The Renault 11 CV, which Bonnard had painted pale yellow, was an uncharacteristically ostentatious purchase for the notoriously shy artist but, it could be argued, a well-earned one. So was the small home in Normandy he purchased—“Ma Roulotte” as he called it—which was in Vernonnet, close to Vernon and Claude Monet’s house in Giverny, which he frequently visited.
But there’s a stereotype about men who buy flashy cars in their mid-40s (though in these early days of motoring it may not have crystallized yet). And though it may be a leap to claim Bonnard was going through a mid-life crisis, he was definitely undergoing a change during this period. He had entered the Parisian art world of the 1890s at the height of Post-Impressionism. A member of the group Les Nabis, he and comrades like Édouard Vuillard and Félix Vallotton created a cutting-edge style of painting that melded the graphic, decorative elements of Art Nouveau and Japanese prints with cues from late Gauguin and the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters. But by 1910, as Cubism and other movements like Abstraction and Expressionism were captivating the avant-garde, the work of Bonnard and Les Nabis, though still appreciated for its beauty, had begun to feel old-fashioned. Reflecting on the period when Cubism, and later Surrealism, swept into the studios and salons of Paris, recalibrating the direction of painting, Bonnard would say that he, Vuillard and Vallotton “found themselves suspended in mid-air in some way.”
In 1912, reinvigoration came not through a zippy automobile (though probably it helped) but through a shift in his approach to painting. Bonnard gave himself over to an exploration of color that manifested on canvas as an exuberantly sensory, almost sublime experience. In still lifes and domestic interiors, his mastery of color and light imbued the objects and spaces of daily life with emotion and intensity. Lest he become entirely swept away by color—a tendency Bonnard himself acknowledged—he launched headlong into an indefatigable drawing practice. His sketches served as the genesis for his large-scale paintings, which he developed slowly over time, often working on several at once. Memory served as his primary source material, and he painted objects—often his own; figures—often his wife; and interiors—often his home—from recollection. As a result, his compositions grew less and less literal, his perspectives more disorienting, and his work more spectral. The paintings from this second period of Bonnard’s oeuvre seem almost like a collection of dreams.
“Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory”, a sweeping exhibition that opened late last month at the Tate Modern, focuses on Bonnard’s output between 1912 and his death in 1947. The show makes the case that the work from this period cements Bonnard as a great 20th-century painter with modern sensibilities. It is an important point to argue, as Bonnard’s reputation has been under scrutiny for decades. Pablo Picasso said, “Don’t talk to me about Bonnard. That’s not painting, what he does,” and insisted he wasn’t “really a modern painter.” Shortly after Bonnard’s death, Christian Zervos, the Greek-French art critic, who was close to Picasso, famously wrote the scathing article “Pierre Bonnard: Is He a Great Painter?” in his magazine Cahiers d’Art. The question in the article’s title was answered in the negative and it shaped a long-held view of Bonnard’s work—that he was either a painter who held on to Impressionism far too long, or worse.
In 1910, before Bonnard changed his work or bought his car, Guillaume Apollinaire, poet and high priest of the early 20th-century avant-garde, also called Bonnard’s modernity into question. “I like Bonnard’s painting very much. It is simple, sensual, witty in the best sense of the word,” he said. “It is true that my taste in general leans towards more ambitious painters, toward painters who are straining towards the sublime in plasticity.” What the Tate exhibition posits is that Bonnard was in fact an ambitious painter, though perhaps not in the same way Picasso or the nameless foils to which Apollinaire was referring or any other great artists of the early 20th century were.
The Tate has been advocating “slow looking” in the lead-up to its exhibition, which puts 100 important works on view. Bonnard’s paintings warrant close examination to be fully grasped, the museum insists—a potentially harrowing assignment for the ever-shrinking attention spans of museum-goers today. But Bonnard’s paintings really do merit meditation, if not to adjust to their flurries of intense color than to discern surreptitious objects and emotions. In Dining Room in the Country, a 1913 oil on canvas that comes to the exhibition from the Minneapolis Institute of Art, objects, figures, even shadows and light take a while to appear to the viewer. Its colors—the reds and oranges of the walls, the light blues of the door that are washed with the iridescent yellows and greens of the outdoor light, the verdant greens of the landscape seen through the window and doorway—seem to vibrate off the canvas, overcoming the eye at first. Its perspective, flattened in the style of Japonisme, make it hard to notice the two cats on the dining chair and armchair, and the curtain behind the shutter that flows to the ground in an intricate web of shapes that look like cut-outs melting into each other. The figure, Bonnard’s wife, Marthe, does not fully register at first. Clad in a tomato-colored top, she leans on the opened window from the outside. It is through Marthe that we can feel Bonnard in the image. When her gaze meets the viewer’s casually, if a bit crabbily, it registers that she is looking at Bonnard and that we inhabit his view. “Are we done yet?” she seems to ask, which is funny because Bonnard would be painting from memory, not a staged sitting. The interior’s forms—the ovoid table, the rectangular door, the squared window—coalesce in a sort of geometric dance, opening out to the landscape, an Eden of Impressionist brush strokes. If the interior and Marthe are Bonnard’s memory, the landscape is another: the memory of what painting was in late 19th-century France.
The photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson said Picasso “had no tenderness”—that’s how he described the Spanish artist’s dislike for Bonnard. Though Bonnard’s domestic interiors and portrayals of Marthe do at times exude tenderness, they are often cut with a sense of strange familiarity, or melancholy, or even fragility. Marthe, whom the artist met in 1893 and with whom he stayed until her death in 1942, appears in over 300 of Bonnard’s works. She serves as a conduit at times, interjecting humanity or acting as a sort of mirror or guide, and other times appears as just a part of the landscape, a figure around the house.
Bonnard became known for his depictions of women bathing, with some of the most famous picturing Marthe in or around the bathtub, as in Bathing Woman, Seen from the Back (circa 1919), Nude Bending Down (1923), and Nude in the Bath (1925). The Bath (Baignoire [Le Bain]), a 1925 oil on canvas, is in the Tate’s collection. It shows Marthe lying in the bath, from above. Though she would have been in her 50s at the time of its painting, Marthe is depicted as a young woman, her fair skin and soft body seemingly tinged blue with bathwater. As she cranes her neck slightly in the curvature of the tub, her gaze projects forward, hitting, one imagines, her feet, which are only partially pictured. Though at first the intimacy of the image may impart a sense of tenderness, there is also a sense of sorrow. Marthe was known to spend hours in the bathroom, a habit that has led scholars to posit she suffered from tuberculosis (water therapy was used as a popular treatment) or spells of anxiety. Her position in the bath, coupled with the removal of the tub’s edges has often elicited a comparison to a body lying in a tomb. Nude in the Bath (Nu dans le bain), was painted over 10 years later (1936–38) but also has then sense of a body lying in state. Marthe, though her dark hair is more of a rust color, has the same young body—even the curvature of her stomach and her navel look the same. Offering a wider view of the bathroom, Nude in the Bath, is awash in glittering, intricate color. The deep marine blue of the floor’s tiles mix with flecks of gold, and evening light paints the walls of the room orange, violet, and yellow.
Among these familiar images in the show, are two that are rarely shown: A Village in Ruins near Ham, painted in 1917, and The Fourteenth of July, painted in 1918, providing different views of World War I. The exhibition marks the first time the paintings have been together in the United Kingdom since they were painted 100 years ago. It is rare to see Bonnard handle subject matter that has a sense of social or political bearing, but the two works, with their views of both battle and celebration, reveal the impression the war made on the artist.
During World War I, Bonnard was 47 and thus, like Matisse, Vuillard, and other artists of his generation, too old to serve on the front lines. Instead, Bonnard joined Missions d’artistes aux armées, which took artists to conflict zones in order to capture the imagery of war. Bonnard was stationed in Somme, and his painting A Village in Ruins Near Ham showcases the destruction he saw in nearby Ham. His canvas shows the town razed to the ground, dotted by a line of soldiers whose bodies form an intricate chain. A Red Cross vehicle is seen in the background, adding to the sense of hopelessness. By contrast, The Fourteenth of July, shows bodies massed together in a thick, jubilant quilt, while magic and merriment seem to float in the air. If A Village in Ruins Near Ham pictures something so dismal as to almost seem beyond death, The Fourteenth of July depicts life at its most lively. The painting showcases revelers on Bastille Day. Bonnard, placing his perspective in the heart of the action—in between dancing and hugging bodies and flickering lights—creates a perspective that seems unfixed, almost constantly in motion. Faces, though static on canvas, twirl, shout, appear and disappear. Everything is stretched and abstracted. It is, as Apollinaire might say, “straining towards the sublime.”
By Sarah E. Fensom