Pierre Bonnard – Tate Modern

This comprehensive exhibition follows Pierre Bonnard from his early days in Paris to his move in 1912 to Vernonnet in Normandy, where he was a near neighbour of the elderly Claude Monet, and his eventual relocation to Le Cannet in the South of France. We follow these peregrinations but the essence of Bonnard’s output changes little. Throughout his life and no matter where he lived, Bonnard’s canvases are saturated with colour. When entering some of the later rooms this can be a touch overwhelming but it never ceases to beguile the senses.

Colour is central to his art but his working methods are also key to understanding his output. Bonnard never painted in front of his subject. His art is about memory. For him, to stand in front of a motif was a distraction. As he told one visitor towards the end of his life, ‘the presence of the object, of the motif, is a hindrance for the painter when he is painting. The point of departure for a painting being an idea’. Instead he relied on notes and sketches in his diary. It left him free to concentrate on his recollections of essential elements and to use whatever colour combinations felt right for a particular composition. He is quoted as saying that ‘Colour has an equally exact logic to that of form’.

One might expect that this master of colour was an exuberant character but he is quoted as saying ‘He who sings is not always joyful’. His dedication to his art was total and this seems to have taken its toll on many aspects of his life such as the rather claustrophobic relationship with his muse Maria Boursin (who he met 1893 and always used the pseudonym Marthe de Méligny). He eventually married her in 1925.

The year after Bonnard bought his house at Vernonnet he painted one of his best loved canvasses – Dining Room in the Country which can be seen at the exhibition. It is one of a series of related works illustrating this room, culminating in the Dining Room, Vernon of c1925 which also features in the ehibition. The door leading to the garden is open as are the double windows revealing an idyllic landscape bathed in evening light. Marthe leans into the room, immersed in a reverie – two cats are her companions, occupying the two chairs. A large circular table fills much of the room painted in a bluish lilac colour which is echoed in the open door and the jug on the sideboard. The walls of the room are a terracotta-orange which morphs into a crimson beneath the window but appears again in the large chair by the window and the windosill. A darker lilac is used for the diaphanous curtain flanking the open door.

The influences on his work are from the previous generation – Gauguin, Degas, Monet and Seurat but Bonnard’s reputation was at its height in 1933 when, after visiting a retrospective exhibition at Bernheim-Jeune in Paris, a critic announced that many were ‘considering him as the greatest master of our time’. This is perhaps an extreme view considering the wealth of talent then working in France (Picasso and Matisse to mention just two) but it does I think correctly place Bonnard as one of the foremost artists of the first half of the twentieth century.

Dining Room in the Country – Minneapolis institute of Art

Link to the Tate Modern Exhibition

For other Bonnard paintings see Great Works of Western Art – Coffee 1915 and Nude in the Bath – 1936, one of the extensive series depicting Marthe who, because of a number of concerns regarding her health, spent considerable amounts of time immersed in her bath or in the process of getting into, or out of it.