Let’s pretend, for a moment, that you don’t already know too much about Pierre Bonnard, and that you are entering this exhibition with fresh and innocent eyes. Spend some time in Room 1, looking at Young Women in the Garden (1921-3/1945-6), as this painting contains so many clues on Pierre Bonnard, his art, his philosophy, and his approach. The first thing you will probably notice is the half-cut figure on the right. Also, quite striking is the central figure, whose face is in the shade, and whose pose is quite unacademic in its spontaneity. The composition and the lighting are reminiscent of a snapshot. There is also something else. There is a lack of weather. Although the background is bright orange, and you can see the light tracing the silhouette of the central figure and her chair, nothing really tells us if it is warm or cold. The scene is like a dream, relived and recreated in the privacy and comfort of an indoor space. The expression of the two women is melancholic, slightly absent, there is a sense of intimacy, but it doesn’t really give that much away. Lastly, look at the dates of the work: three years, then a gap of over twenty, and finally another year. The title of this exhibition is very apt indeed – The Colour of Memory.
In Room 2 our first impression, about snapshots, is confirmed. Bonnard used photography extensively, and it did influence his composition. The artist lived with Marthe de Méligny for thirty years as a couple before they finally married in 1925. In the summer of 1900 they photographed each other naked in their garden, like a modern Adam and Eve. 15 photographs, on public display for the first time in the UK, include these, together with others depicting various domestic moments. Among Bonnard’s favourite subjects were Marthe’s bathing, getting dressed, or out in the garden. Her poses are sensual, but the eye of the painter is not intrusive, there is a respectful intimacy. Bonnard’s innovative nudes seem to point to a harmonious, loving relationship with his subject. But, again, it’s an intimacy that keeps the viewer at arm’s length.
In his forties Bonnard bought a car, which he used to travel around France. He explored colour, light, landscapes, and the interiors of his house in Normandy, his mother’s, and, later, his own, in the South of France. Recurring themes are people sitting at dining tables, with colourful tablecloths that seem to harmonise with the surroundings and with the clothes worn by the characters, as they are drinking coffee, talking, or lost in their inner world. Little pets, cats and dogs, just about emerge from blending with the background. Often there are windows that allow the artist to explore the relationship between indoors and outdoors. If you are curious to track Bonnard’s travels, there is a useful map in Room 9, together with photographs of his studio in the South of France, and portraits taken by eminent photographers such as Cartier-Bresson, plus other interesting archival material.
Bonnard did not paint on location. He saw, jotted down or photographed moments and then relived and reimagined them in his studio. “The presence of the object…”, he declared, “is a hindrance for the painter when he is painting.” He spent a long time on each work, going back to it after months or even years. He didn’t use an easel, but pinned his canvasses directly on the wall, where he could work simultaneously on them, and also roll them up and take them with him on his travels. To give us an idea of what his studio looked like, five paintings have been unframed especially for this exhibition. It is an interesting idea, that helps us see how he worked, and how the paintings looked before entering the public world. Some other considerations could be made about the impact of framing over an artwork.
Often, we think of Bonnard as somewhat withdrawn, isolated from the rest of the world, absorbed in his own private reality, disconnected from his times. The curators of this exhibition want to challenge that view, reuniting in the UK for the first time, two rarely shown paintings, A Village in Ruins near Ham, 1917, and The Fourteenth of July, 1918, that depict his response to life in wartime, an awareness of tragedy and human feelings.
Bonnard also kept in touch with contemporary artists, his use of colour was original, but also in tune with the experiments and trends of the time, such as Fauvism, and certain elements of Orphism. So, he did interact with the wider world. But he never lost his elusiveness. Look at his self-portraits, at the expressions of his subjects, distant, enigmatic. What are they thinking? How do they interact with each other? What role has the viewer in Bonnard’s oneiric world?
Bask in the light of the two yellow rooms, cherish the colours and variety of themes, ponder over his last self-portrait and his last landscape in the last room. And enjoy his quotation, with which most artistic minds cannot but agree, “A painter should have two lives, one in which to learn, and one in which to practice his art.”
First published in the East Finchley Open Artists February 2019 Newsletter - Click HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.