At Tate Modern’s big Spring exhibition yesterday I (and a lot of other people) enjoyed some vibrant Pierre Bonnard paintings. I confess that I hadn’t seen many before, indeed, I knew little about this contemporary of Matisse.
Born in a suburb of Paris, the son of a senior civil servant, Bonnard (1867 – 1947) began to show works in the 1890s. He met Toulouse-Lautrec and, in later life, was a regular visitor to Claude Monet at Giverny and a correspondent of Henri Matisse. The exhibition includes photographs of Bonnard, his studio in the south of France and his companion and wife, Marthe de Meligny, by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Andre Ostier.
He is feted as a colourist and one can see why. He juxtaposes the very brightest of hues, many not found in nature, yet they capture nature. It is easy to understand that, in the depression of the 1930s, his pictures were regarded by critics and the art-loving public as happy and hopeful celebrations of nature, both wild and tamed. Some of the more serious and original aspects of his art were ignored.
He is fond of unusual perspectives, choosing to paint views, interior and exterior, through doors and windows, or through tunnels of greenery. He painted landscapes, many around his house in Normandy and subsequently in the south of France where he bought a house. The red tiled roofs of Le Cannet and small towns around it feature prominently in the rooms covering his later life.
As do pictures of his wife bathing, and, indeed, it was one or two of these which I had come across before. De Meligny suffered from ill health and following the water cure prescribed for her, bathed every day. Bonnard painted her doing so. These paintings are full of light and reflected light, in the water, in the bathroom tiles and on the walls, They are also so full of pattern – the carpet, the bath robe – that I began to think of post Impressionists like Gauguin and Van Gogh. One can also see the influence of the Japanese prints which Bonnard had admired so much in his formative years.
De Meligny was his principal human subject, though he often placed small figures at the forefront of his landscapes, sometimes just sketched lightly, like the shepherd who features in a number of them.
Bonnard’s interiors are equally colourful, though with the colours still found in older houses in rural France today – the dark-brown paint of doors and wood panelling, the distinctive blue-green of the shutters,the red-brown and sometimes black of the terracotta floor tiles. I recognise these from visits to stay in the south of France.
The exhibition is a large one of twelve rooms. I very much enjoyed it, despite the crowds. If, however, you asked me where Bonnard stood in my personal pantheon of twentieth century European artists he wouldn’t be at the top of my list. That’s not to say that he wasn’t taking forward the ideas of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists ( though he preferred to paint from memory in the studio, not in the open air ), it’s just that more interesting developments were, by that time, taking place elsewhere.
The exhibition runs at Tate Modern until 6th May 2019 and costs £18 to enter. Booking is essential (unless you are a member) and be prepared for crowds.