Beyond domesticity: Pierre Bonnard at Tate Modern

Published 22 January 2019

In a new exhibition Pierre Bonnard is celebrated not only as a great colourist but also as the creator of disarming compositions. And, writes Martin Coomer, he should be acknowledged as a painter who ventured well beyond domesticity.

When, in January 2018, Damien Hirst announced on Instagram that his new Veil Paintings were 'like big abstract Bonnard paintings', you could sense a collective intake of breath and firing of synapses as Hirst’s legions of followers attempted to connect the two artists.

It wasn’t that Hirst, an enthusiastic colourist since his earliest Spot Paintings, should find inspiration in the chromatic intensities and luminous atmospheres of Pierre Bonnard. It was more that Brit Art’s consummate showman and the almost preternaturally quiet man of Post-Impressionism are temperamentally so far apart it seems hard to think of them as existing in the same sentence, let alone the same creative world.

‘How can you not love colour? Sunlight on flowers, fuck everything else,’ Hirst went on to tell his followers, serving to underscore everything that separates his and Bonnard’s characters: a typical diary entry by the enigmatic Frenchman, by contrast, reads ‘beau’.

Perhaps Bonnard might have benefited from some of Hirst’s candour. Despite major retrospectives worldwide and admiration by artists as diverse as Milton Avery, Balthus, Patrick Heron, Henri Matisse, Mark Rothko – and latterly Hirst – Bonnard has always suffered more than most, and certainly far more than he deserves, from the vagaries of art-historical opinion, and in the UK at least he has never achieved the household-name status of his near-contemporary Matisse.

This unfortunate situation is partly to do with the waves of ‘isms’ that define the avant-garde at the beginning of the 20th century and Bonnard’s position, self-consciously it seems, outside Modernism’s main thrust.

Bonnard's beginnings

Bonnard was born in the suburbs of Paris in 1867, and his chief artistic affiliation as a young man was with the Symbolist group who called themselves Les Nabis, a name taken from the Hebrew word for ‘prophet’, whose members also included Maurice Denis, Paul Sérusier and Edouard Vuillard.

They shared a yin for the occult. They liked to dress up in robes. They idolised the solid, simplified, devout early work of Paul Gauguin – indeed, Bonnard kept a postcard of Gauguin’s The Vision after the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, 1888), on his studio wall until his death in 1947.

And, while their interests reflected a fashionable milieu, their work is too easily seen as a kind of retreat, particularly the highly patterned interior scenes, thick with domesticity, of Vuillard and Bonnard. The stampede of Les Fauves appears to have passed Bonnard by. His work is untouched by the angles of Cubism.

‘He’s burdened with carrying on the tradition of Impressionism, whereas when you look at the work, something else is happening,’ says Matthew Gale, head of displays at Tate Modern and curator of Tate’s forthcoming exhibition, Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory, which, some 20 years after the last major Bonnard exhibition in London, also at Tate, seeks to reaffirm his position as an innovator of colour and composition – as a truly 20th-century artist – while introducing him to a new audience.

Tate's reappraisal

Beginning in 1912, with what it considers the emergence of Bonnard’s mature style, Tate’s reappraisal is two-pronged.

First, it wants us to look again at Bonnard’s reputation as a bourgeois homebody in the bucolic South of France, untouched by the world outside his self-created idyll and unconcerned with external influences other than that, to quote Hirst, of ‘sunlight on flowers’.

‘One of the things we’re trying to do is bring him out of the isolation of the painter on the hill, to show some awareness of what’s going on in the wider world,’ says Gale.

The myth of Bonnard, the reclusive colourist enjoying life in splendid isolation, persists because it is of a piece with his brand of sunkissed domesticity. In around June or July 1909, the story goes, Bonnard and his muse Marthe de Méligny, whom he had met in Paris in the 1890s, when he was 26 and she was 24 (though she told him she was 16), began to spend time in the South. At first they shuttled back and forth between Saint-Tropez in winter and Normandy in summer. Gradually, though, the lure of the South won out and they spent more and more time in the area around Cannes.

In 1926, perhaps hastened by his belated marriage to Marthe the year before, Bonnard purchased a modest house in the village of Le Cannet, which he immediately christened Le Bosquet (‘The Grove’). He made alterations to the house, knocking together rooms, allowing light and nature to enter, and created additions – a studio for himself in the north corner, and in the south a bathroom for Marthe who, afflicted with various physiological and psychological disorders, withdrew there for increasing amounts of the day.

Later, dissatisfied with the extent of his garden, he purchased an adjoining piece of land complete with an almond tree. And that became the extent of both their worlds for the next two decades.

Sanctuary in the south of France

Bonnard had all he wanted: ideas, companionship. He had his garden, with its glimpses of the distant Mediterranean. He had his modest home. And he had Marthe, whom he painted on the terrace, laying the table, reading, sewing, but mostly in the bathroom, undressing, drying herself and, in a series of golden canvases from the mid-1920s onwards, as a reclining goddess, with flesh, water and the geometry of the tiled-bathroom architecture dissolving into luminescence. It is a world both epic and intimate, watery within and without.

Photographs of the artist, a selection of which will be on display at Tate Modern, do nothing to disprove the myth of the intensely private painter in his ivory tower. The man we see in images taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1944, clutching at the lapels of his overcoat to keep out the cold as he patrols his garden, eyes the camera warily.

André Ostier, in 1941, captures a more relaxed Bonnard, a sun hat pulled down around his ears, a beloved dachshund on his knee, yet a brittle interiority persists, heightened perhaps by the shadow spikes of a succulent that fall across his suit, the garden imprinting itself upon the artist, even when out of our view.

According to Gale, though, the myth of the contented hermit isn’t entirely true. Throughout his life Bonnard embraced modern techniques such as photography. And, thanks to his beloved Renault, his life was far from confined to his picturesque house and garden.

Bonnard’s habit of tacking his canvases directly to his studio wall rather than using wooden stretchers meant that they could be rolled up and transported to wherever he happened to be, which was often one of the many spas around the country where he and Marthe chose to visit (Marthe’s bathroom fixation can also be linked to the vogue for hydrotherapy). Bonnard, therefore, could just as easily be painting his beloved almond tree in Deauville as in Le Cannet.

And the modern world impinged on him, too. A startling inclusion in the Tate show is A Ruined Village Near Ham (1917), painted during the First World War, after an official visit during which Bonnard was taken to the Western Front as an observer. While a lesser-known work, and certainly not among his finest, its power is derived from the sense of him trying to come to terms with the appalling subject matter – men and mud – struggling to find a vocabulary to articulate what he saw.

Encounters with conflict and tragedy

Later, during the Second World War, the effects of conflicts were felt even closer to home. For Gale, Bonnard’s still lifes of the 1940s can be read as a balance between the depiction of seasonal harvest and the privations of war. Bonnard wrote to Matisse about shortages of basic foodstuffs, hardships that must have seemed all the more severe given the natural abundance of the Côte d’Azur.

Bonnard’s life was beset by personal tragedies that, according to Gale, inflect even his most quotidian of subjects. In 1919 his mother died, followed in 1923 by his brother-in-law and, shortly afterwards, his sister. He fell ill with pneumonia.

‘I’m hesitant to use the word melancholy but there is an element of that, it seems, to me,’ says Gale. ‘I think one of the things that I find fascinating is that his colour can be so joyous but the atmosphere of the paintings seems to be about the passage of time.’

Bonnard expresses a tendency towards melancholy in his own writing: ‘The moment one says one is happy, one no longer is,’ he noted in his diary on 12 February 1939. It’s tempting to think of the looming war. Yet, his entry for 3 September, the day the Second World War broke out, simply says ‘rainy’. In this respect, he remains a mystery. ‘One can’t make him into a social commentator,’ Gale concedes.

A radical painter?

The second of Tate’s aims is to convince us that the world Bonnard paints is radical, not only in its unwavering focus on the domestic, but in its tacit deployment of daring colour and disarming composition.

This second strand to the curatorial argument requires us to look beyond subject matter – as, indeed, Bonnard is credited with doing by his champions.

It’s a tall order. Bonnard’s paintings are utterly suffused with the everyday. The breakfast table is laid and cleared. Marthe gets in and out of the bath. Occasionally a cat might lazily stretch into the frame, or a dog might sniff the air at a passing plate. The results of Bonnard’s focus on the apparently inconsequential are among the most ravishing of works painted anywhere in the 20th century. But are they in any sense radical?

‘Bonnard is the end of an old idea, not the beginning of a new one,’ seethed Picasso in one of the most famous put-downs in art history. It’s worth reading more of Picasso’s damning verdict, as remembered by his lover and muse Françoise Gilot.

‘That’s not painting, what he does…He never goes beyond his own sensibility. He doesn’t know how to choose. When Bonnard paints a sky, perhaps he first paints it blue, more or less the way it looks. Then he looks a little longer and sees some mauve in it, so he adds a touch or two of mauve, just to hedge. Then he decides that maybe it’s a little pink too, so there’s no reason not to add some pink. The result is a pot-pourri of indecision…’

But, while his discoveries didn’t fit in with Picasso’s definition of the cutting edge, there is much in Bonnard that is both avant-garde and highly influential.

Throughout his career he made use of mirror reflections and peripheral effects, suffusing solid architecture with transcendent light. He played with perspective, tilting tabletops, which, in paintings such as Coffee (1915), become near abstract forms right at the centre of the picture. Checked tablecloths become nascent grids.

Often, he seems to be testing the degree to which a composition can hold together while being decentred. All activity takes place around the edge of the picture becoming noticeable over time.

The critic David Sylvester, writing in 1962, went as far as to suggest that Bonnard was ‘re-creating the process of seeing’. Bonnard himself wrote that he considered painting to be ‘the transcription of the adventures of the optic nerve’.

It is, as hinted at by the exhibition’s subtitle, ‘The Colour of Memory’, as if Bonnard was painting not only what it is to look but also to recollect.

Bonnard's lasting influence: Colour and composition

And as for Picasso’s damning ‘pot-pourri’ of indecisive colour? Jewel-bright or brooding and bruised, Bonnard’s chromatic experiments, whereby close tones are overlaid to create vibrating blocks of colour, along with his compositional innovation, are often cited as a catalyst for change in Mark Rothko’s art.

While Rothko was as reluctant a commentator as Bonnard, he would certainly have seen the Frenchman’s work in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, as well as MoMa New York’s posthumous exhibition, held in 1948. Indeed, there have been exhibitions that have shown the two artists side by side, and it is more than seductive to see Bonnard’s late landscapes, with their striated structure, as being in some ways forerunners of Rothko’s sublime mature works.

The British abstract painter Patrick Heron nailed his colours to the mast when, also in 1947, he wrote about the subliminal grid in Bonnard’s art. ‘I think we may best conceive this underlying abstract rhythm in Bonnard if we think of a piece of large-scale fish-net drawn over the surface of the canvas; it is through an imaginary structure of loose, connected squares – sometimes pulled into oblongs and sometimes into diamond shapes – that Bonnard seems to look at his subject.’

Tate, rightly, saves such arguments for and against Bonnard for its catalogue, leaving the artist to speak for himself in the 100 or so works on show. However, there is written in his diaries a sense that Bonnard was thinking of his position, concerned about legacy, posterity. ‘I should like to present myself to the young painters of the year 2000 with the wings of a butterfly,’ he noted, gnomically, the year before his death.

He needn’t have worried. Bonnard, the quietest of radicals, appears radiantly to us today, his wings not pinned and mounted Damien Hirst-style, but open for rediscovery, reappraisal and joy.

Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory is £9 with National Art Pass (£18 standard), 23 January to 6 May, Tate Modern, London.

This feature was originally published in the winter 2018 issue of Art Quarterly, the magazine of Art Fund.

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