Bonnard was one of those betwixt and between artists, part of the Modern Movement in one sense, not fully Modern – in contrast, for example, to Matisse and Picasso. As a result, he is often dismissed as a kind of relic, making work that is pleasurable to look at but out of touch with its time.
This splendid show, subtitled The Colour of Memory, suggests that it’s worthwhile to think again
Born in 1867, Bonnard was just two years older than Matisse, who was born in 1869, though quite a bit senior to Picasso, born in 1881. He lived until 1947, so his career as an artist spanned both of the great World Wars. He was, however, too senior to participate directly even in the first of these conflicts, which left very little mark on his work. The Tate show contains just one painting that confronts it – A Village in Ruins near Ham – painted in 1917. In this, he resembled quite a number of leading French artists, who lived and worked during the same epoch. The temptation is to dismiss Bonnard as comfortably bourgeois, unaware of the problems of his time.
The Tate show sets out to subvert this impression and does so very successfully. Bonnard, though he moved around quite restlessly, mostly but not always within France, lived a somewhat claustrophobic existence. Much of this seems to have been due to his partner, a deeply neurotic woman called Marthe de Méligny, with whom he lived for thirty years, before at last marrying her. De Méligny suffered from many illnesses, or should one say from many symptoms. She was, for example, compulsive about taking baths. Some of Bonnard’s most striking canvases record this habit. Bonnard, for all his devotion to her, had two mistresses, whom he also portrayed. One died young, of cancer. The other committed suicide, within days of the date when Bonnard finally married Marthe.
Bonnard’s paintings often have strikingly intricate compositions, which lead the spectator’s eye from one space to another. Very often these spaces do not fit together in quite the way the viewer expects. One influence here seems to have been Japanese ukioy-e prints, which also had an impact on predecessors such as Gauguin. Bonnard often plays with pictorial space by including mirrors in his compositions. What these mirrors show is not always entirely ‘true to life’. The painted reflection does not quite fit the logic of reality.
He also plays with space in a different way. In a number of his paintings, one has to look over an obstacle in the foreground, to see what lies beyond. He organises space in band-like compositions, with the very near juxtaposed with what is surprisingly – at first glance – far away.
These experiments with space are reinforced by Bonnard’s mastery of colour. His paintings are dense with colour, but never what one might describe as raucous. How does this come about? The title chosen for the exhibition supplies a clue. It seems that these paintings were never created directly from the places, objects or people portrayed. They are not the thing itself, the real immediate visual event, but a memory of that event. The elaborate surfaces and dense hues of the paintings command us to look at them as objects that exist in their own right, quite separately from the scenes and combinations of forms that originally suggested them.
One surprising feature of some of Bonnard’s compositions is the classicism – one can only call it that – of his depictions of the female nude. These are in direct line of descent from the work of leading Neo-classicists, such as J-L David and Ingres. One can even perhaps see in them characteristics that echo the nudes of Poussin.
In this sense Bonnard is very much a French painter, carrying forward a great inheritance, and adapting it to his own day.
It’s at this point that his work ceases, for me, to be truly modern, in the broader sense of this adjective. You look at these paintings, and think how wonderfully inventive they are, in terms of the visual language they employ. You look again and think that nobody working now can use paint in quite this comprehensive, all-encompassing way.