In his late seventies, Pierre Bonnard published a curious little book called “Correspondances” (1944). A number of rapidly executed sketches of domestic scenes are presented alongside a series of letters that the artist wrote himself, imagining them to have been sent to him by friends and family members in the 1890s. There is something poignant about how trivial these letters are; with this act of ventriloquism, Bonnard meticulously excavated the most banal details from his own deep past. “My dear child”, a letter from his mother begins, “We’re just waiting for you. All the family is here now cousin Augustine has just arrived…The weather is good and we are spending lovely afternoons in the shade.”
The past never strayed far from Bonnard’s mind, as “The Colour of Memory”, an exhibition of the painter’s work at Tate Modern in London, demonstrates. The show focuses on his career after 1900, when he began to emerge as a master of colour. By this time, he was exhibiting his paintings with the Fauves, a group of artists which included his lifelong friend, Henri Matisse. His most characteristic works, of domestic interiors illuminated by light pouring through an open door or window, combine a Fauvist celebration of raw, primary colour with his own earlier investigations into Japonisme’s flat, decorative style. Picasso once privately dismissed him as a relic of the Impressionists – “at the end of an old idea” – while more forgiving critics concluded that he was the archetypal “painter of happiness”. But unlike the Impressionists, who painted from nature, Bonnard painted almost exclusively from memory, arguing that “the presence of the object” was “a hindrance” to communicating the artist’s original idea.
Throughout his long career, Bonnard continued to return to the same subjects: pastoral landscapes; the view out of his kitchen door in the south of France; nudes of his wife Marthe, in the bath or at her toilette, in which she never seems to age with the years. These scenes become etched in the viewer’s memory over the course of the exhibition, yet their mood appears to vary endlessly, as Bonnard’s fluency with colour harmonies and consummate skill with perspective continued to develop. The portrait that emerges from this compelling exhibition is of an artist committed to remaking his memories – one who drove painting along new roads, even while remaining irrevocably tied to his past.
Bonnard’s use of colour here almost has the effect of rendering this scene of Marthe at the kitchen table into a flat, decorative scheme. The blue shadows of the cups and saucers on the table, and of the chair on which the little dog sits, chime with the cropped figure at top right. Dressed in vivid yellow, Marthe herself is a solid presence.
Perhaps what’s most immediately striking here is the quality of absolute attention that Bonnard’s figures possess. The woman is utterly absorbed by the dog to her right, while it in turn seems ensconced in the tablecloth. Only the presence of the woman at the right is ambiguous – you don’t know if she’s coming or going. Bonnard was interested in how photography could capture fleeting or accidental poses and gestures. Here he has made a painting depicting a mere moment in time.
“The Mantlepiece” (1916)
The modelling of this nude in deep shadow and white light lends the intimate scene a sense of monumentality, pointing to Bonnard’s interest in classical sculpture. It’s instructive to think of him examining Hellenic Venuses in the Louvre but it won’t do to forget his bon mot that “the most interesting things in museums are the windows”. The framing device deployed here lends the painting an intriguingly tricksy quality. The nude casts her eyes upwards, perhaps glimpsing the reflection in the mirror of the Modigliani-like painting behind her. The viewer appears to be positioned somewhere below the mantelpiece, gazing up at the nude. We ought to be able to see ourselves in the mirror – yet we are absent from the image.
This vast painting was begun in 1917, shortly after the artist had returned from painting the devastation at the Somme. Its vision of a pastoral paradise could not seem further removed from the harsh realities of war; Bonnard spoke of the painting as “the only possible refuge”.
The first thing you notice about it is the massed blocks of vivid, contrasting colours. On closer inspection, these blocks dissolve into a variety of hues – from lilac to ultramarine, yellow ochre to burnt umber – and the painting appears to dance before your eyes. In an early instance of a technique Bonnard would frequently use in his later work, the figures are depicted in virtually the same tones as their surroundings, as though to convey their harmony with the world around them.
“Nude in the Bath” (Nu dans le bain) (1936-8)
Bonnard painted Marthe bathing many times. It’s now believed that she was prescribed hydrotherapy for her tuberculosis; in a sense these paintings record her gradual decline. While most of them are inward-looking, with muted palettes, this work is infused with a kind of joyful serenity. She is swathed in a yellow light that seems to stream through the window and warm the blue water.
“The Studio with Mimosas” (1939-46)
This is one of the last paintings Bonnard ever completed. It shows how, towards the end, his work began to approach abstraction, the subject of the painting almost dissolving entirely into bright, blurred daubs. The shining yellows of the mimosa tree are repeated in the ethereal form of the figure at the bottom left, while the cooler blues of the sky are mirrored in the woodwork at the bottom right. Bonnard believed that, for painters, colour was as important as form. That he believed this to the last is evident in this picture, and in the poignant anecdote that relates how, when he was too frail to continue painting, he asked his nephew to replace a small patch of green in his final work, “Almond Tree in Bloom” (1946), with bright yellow.
Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory Tate Modern, London, until May 6th