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Ghosts in a colour machine

John Evans explores the dreamlike and mysterious works by Pierre Bonnard on show at Tate Modern

08 February, 2019 — By John Evans

Pierre Bonnard, The Fourteenth of July 1918, oil on canvas, 59.5 x 85.3cm. private collection

SHADOWY figures here, figures in the shadows there, even the hint of a ghost or apparition, and a distinctly dreamlike and mysterious quality to the works, all are to be seen in Tate Modern’s new show Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory.

When a critic of a Bonnard (1867-1947) retrospective in the year of the artist’s death, suggested his work showed Impressionism as insipid and falling into decline, Bonnard was defended by his friend Henri Matisse.

Matisse (1869-1954) is reported to have written: “I maintain that Bonnard is a great artist for our time and, naturally, for posterity.”

So who is going to challenge Matisse on this one? Yet what the Tate has done is to bring some 100 or so works – oils, a few sketches, watercolours, and archival material, and a snippet of film of the man – together, so that we can judge for ourselves.

It must be said, though, that Bonnard was no Matisse.

It’s true that, as the title of the exhibition hints, Bonnard is known for his subtle and idiosyncratic use of colour and the way in which his brushwork, while it might appear at times to be hurried, allows his unconventional and unique approach.

There is a lot of emphasis on gardens and foliage, interiors and people close to him.

Bonnard, Nude in the Bath, 1936-8, oil on canvas, 93 x 147cm. Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris/Roger-Viollet

Yet even with his long-term partner, Marthe de Méligny, whom he would depict well over 350 times, including many nudes, Bonnard searches for the ethereal.

One of his greatest oils is shown here, Marthe as Nude in the Bath from 1936, a subject to which had returned from time to time. And even in some of the room interior paintings there may appear a part image of a figure – often full length but vertically sliced, so to speak, at the edge.

Bonnard would indeed revisit subjects, with colour changes, noticeable. It allowed him to show the same door in a different light, or landscape subtly changed.

He would work from memory (and occasionally photo­graphs) and even the few still lifes here are more interesting for their colour than composition. If he depicted a scene with a mirror, the artist’s or viewer’s image would probably not be shown, but the angles and definition would be ambiguous in any case.

Bonnard often had a number of works on the go at the same time and he said he would have them up on the wall, without frames, which he apparently found restrictive. While painting he would not be sure of the final dimensions, he suggested.

Bonnard was successful throughout his career, from early “decorative and fashionable” until he switched to more experimentation with colour in his mid-40s. The landscapes may come from Normandy, the Paris area, or the south of France, to which he and Marthe moved, above Cannes, in 1926.

The exhibition also features self-portraits, which obviously are helpful in tracing changes in approach. It also reunites two notable oils from the time of the First World War, A Village in Ruins near Ham, 1917, showing desolation, and The Fourteenth of July 1918, showing celebrations.

The Bastille Day painting shows another aspect of Bonnard’s style, the way he uses foreground figures in a crowd to enhance a background scene.

• Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory, is at Tate Modern until May 6. tate.org.uk Details 020 7887 8888.

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