The Colour of Memory

It has been twenty years since the last exhibition of paintings by the late-impressionist Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) was displayed at Tate Modern. Now, until 6th May, the artworks have returned to introduce a new generation to one of the greatest colourists of the early 20th century. Beginning around 1900, Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory focuses on his mature work, many of which allow a glimpse into Bonnard’s private, domestic life.

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Bonnard with his dog, 1941, André Ostier

Whilst the exhibition is in chronological order, very little of Bonnard’s life prior to 1900 is alluded to, therefore, the painter as a person remains rather elusive. Further research reveals that Pierre Bonnard was born on 3rd October 1867 in Fontenay-aux-Roses, just south of Paris. He was the second of three children; the elder, Charles, became a chemist, whereas the younger sister, Andrée was a musician. Neither of Bonnard’s parents had any art connections and his father, a departmental head at the French Ministry of War, intended his son to study law.

Bonnard did begin studying law faculty in Paris during 1887 but found he had no interest in the subject. Instead, he enrolled in schools, such as the Académie Julian, where he befriended the painter Paul Sérusier (1864-1927), and the École des Beaux-Arts, where he met Édouard Vuillard (1868-1940), with whom he would become life-long friends. Through these two friendships, Bonnard became associated with the Nabis (the Hebrew word for “Prophets”), a group of artists who saw themselves as prophets of modern art, often acting as a mystical brotherhood, wearing Oriental costumes to their monthly meetings.

Through his association with the Nabis, Bonnard developed a passion for Japanese art, earning himself the nickname “le Nabi très japonard”. He admired the decorative flatness of Japanese art, which lead him to experiment with painted screens, posters and book illustrations. As a result, Bonnard was well-known in the graphic design field, however, by 1900, he had left this aesthetic behind, in favour of the impressionist style shown in the exhibition.

There were two women in Bonnard’s life who were frequently used as his muse. The first was his long term partner Marthe de Méligny (1869-1942), who he met in 1893 and married thirty-two years later. As Bonnard discovered due to marriage, Marthe’s real name was Maria Boursin, however, she had changed it in an attempt to appear more than a working-class girl.

Despite not marrying until later in life, Bonnard and Marthe defied convention and lived together as a couple, therefore, Marthe was often on hand to act as Bonnard’s model. Many of the paintings Marthe inspired, as the first few rooms of the exhibition reveal, involved nudity, however, there was nothing corrupt or shameful about the way these figures were portrayed.

Bonnard prefered to paint from memory rather than on location, therefore, his paintings of female nudes were not posed or portrayed in contrived positions. Instead, Bonnard captured natural, casual moments, for example, a woman washing or dressing. Mirror above a Washstand (La Glace du cabinet toilette) shows the back of a naked woman reflected in a dressing table mirror. It is as though the model is unaware of the painter’s presence, however, she is not ashamed of her nakedness, emphasised by a female companion seen drinking a cup of tea in close proximity.

The other regularly occurring woman in Bonnard’s paintings is his lover Renée Monchaty. The true nature of their relationship is unclear, however, it does not appear to have been too private because she accompanied him to public places. Although this affair must have put a strain on Bonnard’s relationship with Marthe, he eventually broke it off with Renée and married his long term partner in 1925. Renée, perhaps heartbroken, took her own life the following month.

“I leave it … I come back … I do not let myself become absorbed by the object itself.”
– Pierre Bonnard

One of the first paintings in the exhibition, Young Women in the Garden (Jeunes femmes au Jardin) shows both of Bonnard’s women. The central figure seated at a table is Renée and the profile of a woman in the lower righthand corner has been identified as Marthe. The significance of this painting, however, is not the presence of both women, but the length of time it took Bonnard to complete the picture. After beginning in 1921, Bonnard put the canvas aside for many years, finally coming back to it in 1945 after both women in the scene were dead. This was a common occurrence for Bonnard, he would leave paintings and come back to them at a later date to add more detail. In fact, he never considered a painting to be completely finished.

Although it often took Bonnard years to complete a painting – if they can be called complete – his subject matter was inspired by the camera. Bonnard and Marthe were keen photographers and the notion of being able to capture a single moment helped Bonnard to move away from the typical poses of artists’ models. A camera can seize an image in a split second in a way that painting never could. It can capture a movement, freezing it forever. Bonnard, in his own unique way, attempted to replicate the unplanned, spontaneous abilities of the camera.

Unlike the camera, however, Bonnard explored the possibilities of colour, settling for bold, expressive combinations. Bonnard, along with artists such as Henri Matisse (1869-1954), earned the nickname “Fauves”, the French word for “wild beasts” on account of their use of raw colour.

“You see, when I and my friends adopted the Impressionsts’ colour programme in order to build on it we wanted to go beyond naturalistic colour impressions. Art is not nature – we wanted a more rigorous composition. There was also so much more to extract from colour as a means of expression. But developments ran ahead, society was ready to accept Cubism and Surrealism before we had reached what we viewed as our aim.”
– Pierre Bonnard

Around the time that Bonnard was distancing himself from the Nabis group, he purchased his first car in 1911, which allowed him to explore the countryside and the power that natural light had on the landscape – something he tried to express in his later paintings. A year later in 1912, Bonnard bought a house in Vernonnet, Normandy, which he called Ma Roulotte (My Caravan). It is from here and the surrounding areas that the majority of Bonnard’s work in the exhibition were produced.

Except for the paintings of his nude partner in the bedroom or bathroom, the room that features the most in Bonnard’s work is the dining room whose windows look out onto the luscious, green back garden. Although the scenes may change, the room is recognisable from painting to painting.

Bonnard’s exploration of colour can be seen in the Dining Room in the Country (Salle à manger à la campagne), which was one of the first paintings he produced at his home in Normandy. The crisper, fresher colours of the garden contrast with the warm glow of the interior. The woman’s presence, most likely Marthe, leaning on the window sill, looking into the house was not posed for the painting; Bonnard was painting from memory.

There are many examples where Bonnard has contrasted the colours of the exterior and interior. Another is Open Window Towards the Seine (Vernon) (Fenêtre ouverte sur la Seine (Vernon)), where the green and blue hues are total opposites to the darker orange tones of the room. Almost missable at the edge of the canvas is a small figure of a boy in the doorway looking out into the garden. It is uncertain who the boy is because, although not much is known about Bonnard’s private life, it is believed he and Marthe never had children.

The contrast of colour between outside and inside in the painting Coffee (Le Café) is much starker than the previous two paintings. The intensity of the tones on the table cloth, yellow jumper and dog are much more precise than the gloomy grass and pathway that can be seen through the window. This suggests that the painting was produced, or at least the vision or memory in Bonnard’s head was formed, in the early evening or during a winter afternoon, the lack of sunlight dulling the natural colours of the garden.

The majority of Bonnard’s paintings show peaceful, tranquil scenes, however, during the years surrounding the First World War, Bonnard experimented with busier images. In some ways, Bonnard’s View from Uhlenhorst Ferry House on the Outer Alster Lake with St. Johannis (Fête sur L’Eau), resembles the genre of scenes that the impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) produced in his heyday. Renoir is famous for his paintings of bustling Parisian society and leisure activities, such as boating on a lake. Bonnard’s painting, whilst resembling Renoir in terms of content, sticks to his loose, painterly style full of shimmering light and colour.

View from Uhlenhorst Ferry House… is a response to the new sights and activities Bonnard experienced when visiting Hamburg with Édouard Vuillard at the invitation of Alfred Lichtwark (1852-1914), the Director of the Kunsthalle, the city’s museum. The regatta in the harbour is a completely different reality to Bonnard’s day-to-day life.

When the war began in August 1914, Bonnard was 46 years old and eligible to serve in the French army. Nonetheless, he opted not to fight in the conflict and continued to focus on his art. Whilst he continued to paint his usual topics, he did not entirely ignore the death and destruction occurring around him. In 1917, Bonnard painted A Village in Ruins near Ham (Un Village en ruines près de Ham) to record the devastation the war caused. Ham was a commune in the Somme, which was the scene of a lengthy battle in 1916. The painting, which looks unfinished, uses a watery-technique to reflect the desolation.

Towards the end of the war, Bonnard painted yet another artwork that transcends the usual genre of his work. The Fourteenth of July (Quatorze Julliet) shows the hustle and bustle of a crowded street during the night of 14th July, France’s national day. Although the Armistice was yet to come, the celebrating crowd emphasises the patriotism of the French, which Bonnard captured with urgent brushwork.

After the war, Bonnard’s painting returned to the calmer, more precise method he had previously honed. Whilst this may have symbolised the return to peace, it also coincided with the death of his mother Elizabeth, which, for Bonnard, signalled a larger break with the past. Whereas most people separated their lives into before war and after the war, Bonnard used the death of his mother to split his before and afters.

Just as Bonnard returned to painting the female nude, his interior scenes continued to have the same background features – a window and a door. The Bowl of Milk (Le Bol de lait), however, only contains one window and, instead of a garden, looks out over the sea. The room appears to be lit by the reflection on the water rather than the sunlight itself.

Vernonnet, where Bonnard lived, was a short distance from Giverny where the prolific artist Claude Monet (1840-1926) lived. Bonnard regularly visited the older artist, whose landscape paintings encouraged Bonnard to create his own, away from the house. Nonetheless, whilst Monet worked en plein air, Bonnard continued to memorise the scene in his head and paint at a later date.

Although Bonnard began producing landscape paintings, they continued to contrast man-made and natural environments. His use of colour, however, continued to go beyond the realms of natural colour. This may have been in order to distinguish himself from other artists at exhibitions in Paris that he sent artworks to every year.

At this time, Bonnard was having a love affair with Renée Monchaty with whom he visited Rome in 1921. Similar to his trip to Hamburg in 1913, Bonnard recorded the sights he saw in his artwork, for example, Piazza del Popolo, Rome where his nephew Charles Terrasse (1893-1982) was studying. This fact, along with letters sent to Marthe from both Bonnard and Renée suggests that the affair was not a secret.

The scenes in Rome are urban and feature many figures, both in the foreground and the background. Monet, however, had convinced Bonnard to experiment with countryside landscapes, such as that which can be seen in The Violet Fence (La Palissade violette). True to Bonnard’s style, the green landscape is made up of unnaturally bright green hues and is contrasted with the paler, man-made wooden fence.

As well as landscapes, Bonnard turned his hand to still life, devoid of human presence and the outside world. Basket of Bananas (Le Corbeile de bananes) uses a similar colour scheme to the interior of rooms he painted in the previous decade, thus suggesting these still lives may have been painted or seen in the same setting.

One room of the exhibition contains a number of paintings that Bonnard produced in 1925. What sets these particular paintings apart from the rest of the display is that a number have been removed from their frames in order to provide an insight into how the artist worked. Rather than using an easel, Bonnard pinned his canvases directly onto the wall, allowing him to paint the entire surface. Often, he pinned several on the same wall so that he could switch between paintings whenever he felt like working on something different.

In Bonnard’s work, there is a sense of cropping with some features only half in the picture. This, in a way, echoes the camera, which can only capture what can be seen through the lens. By removing the frames, viewers can see that the cropping was intentional and not an effect of the frame. On some paintings, Bonnard sketched in lines where the frame would fall in order to make sure everything he wanted in the scene would be on view.

In 1926, Bonnard and Marthe moved to the village of Le Cannet in the south of France. The name of their new house was Le Bosquet (The Grove) on account of its surrounding thicket of trees. His painting The Garden (Le Jardin) shows the mass of growth the Bonnard’s had in their back garden, emphasised by Bonnard’s rapid brushstrokes.

The walls of the final rooms in the exhibition are painted Naples yellow, which was the same shade that Bonnard painted his dining room at Le Bosquet. The common theme of contrast between exterior and interior continued in his new home, as can be seen in Large Dining Room Overlooking the Garden (Grande Salle à manger sur le jardin). This painting took over a year to complete, which goes to show how good Bonnard’s memory (or imagination) was since there was no way he could possibly set up his canvas in the same room for that length of time.

The colour yellow became more prominent in these later paintings, perhaps due to the colour of Bonnard’s dining room walls. Bonnard began experimenting with self-portraits, such as The Boxer (Le Boxeur), which also has a yellow background.

The final years of Bonnard’s life were marred by the Second World War and the death of his life-long companion Marthe in January 1942. The war and subsequent travel restrictions meant that Bonnard was mostly confined to his home and the surrounding countryside. Nevertheless, he persevered with his paintings, finding solace in his encounters with nature, which he recorded on canvases, for instance, Steps in the Artist’s Garden (L’Escalier dans le jardin de l’artiste).

In a slightly different from usual manner, Bonnard depicted swimmers in the sea in Bathers at the End of the Day (Baigneurs à la fin du jour). Whilst the deep blue tones cover the majority of the canvas, the colours merge into greens and yellows at the top and bottom to form the shore and sky.

Despite subtle changes over the years, Bonnard continued to return to his typical interplay between interior and exterior. The Studio with Mimosa (L’Atelier au mimosa) was begun in 1939 and took until 1946, the year before his death, to complete. Unlike the contrasting colours used in previous examples, these tones appear to explode from the canvas, taking on a fiery atmosphere. Bonnard claimed his choice of colours were emotion driven, which in this instance could suggest feelings of anger and frustration over the losses he had suffered in life through war and death.

“I am just beginning to understand what it is to paint. A painter should have two lives, one in which to learn, and one in which to practise his art.”
– Pierre Bonnard

For a painter who never thought his paintings were finished, Bonnard completed a large number of canvases. By omitting his work produced prior to 1900, Tate Modern create a picture of an artist who discovered a method he could work with and stuck with for most of his life. At a time when the art world was moving on to newer, abstract things, Bonnard stuck to the style that had worked for him and produced a unique collection of work.

It is a shame that so little is known about Pierre Bonnard’s life, however, Tate Modern provide visitors with photographs and correspondence that reveal a little of Bonnard’s personality and daily situation. He was a contemporary of Matisse and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), who had differing views about their friend’s style of art, the former believing that Bonnard was “one of the greatest painters”.

Whilst Bonnard’s work may not be to everyone’s taste, his paintings are pleasant to look at and, despite some nudism, are not repulsive in any way. In art history, the focus tends to be on the prevailing art movements of the time, so it is thanks to Tate Modern that this unconventional artist will not be forgotten.

Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory will be on display until 6th May 2019. Tickets cost £18 for adults, although members of Tate can visit for free.

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3 thoughts on “The Colour of Memory

  1. I was not familiar with Pierre Bonnard’s work so thank you Hazel for a very comprehensive description of this exhibition. Another very informative effort.

  2. A really enjoyable read. Hazel, you have great style and your writing always entertains and informs. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Pingback: Painter of Disquiet | Hazel Stainer

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