An introduction to Pierre Bonnard

Jessica Lone Summers

We chat to Tate Modern curator, Matthew Gale, about his upcoming Pierre Bonnard exhibition, and what makes the colourful artist so uniquely brilliant

RD: Bonnard's extensive use of colour meant he was sometimes described as "the painter of happiness", yet many of his paintings are somewhat melancholy—do you think his life heavily influenced his work, or was colour simply his style?

Gale: Colour and melancholy go together in a surprising way in his work and that’s one of the things that is crucial to the exhibition. It’s definitely crucial to the approach because the colour would appear to suggest that this is joyous material, yet there seems to be something that is seductive in the colour which makes you more aware of the more serious or melancholic undertone.

The Garden 1926

I think his work is rooted in the place in which he is at any one time, so we come to recognise his houses, studios and companions but my take on it is that it’s about the passage of time rather than simply chronicling what’s in front of him. That’s what makes it so intriguing; that he seems to be alerting us to time passing. 

"He can really make some extraordinarily challenging colour juxtapositions that many other artists would hold back from"

RD: So, could there be an overlap of time in one painting?

Gale: Yes, but also the general mood is one of recollection rather than recording. We know that when he was physically working on the canvas that he’s not standing directly in front of his subject—he has worked on the subject through drawing and by thinking it through in his mind, and only then would he take it to the canvas in his studio.

The Bowl of Milk 1919

"Picasso saw him as indecisive but I think he's misreading Bonnard"

RD: Why did Bonnard find success so early on in his career when many other prominent artists find it much later?

Gale: In his youth he struck a chord through making fantastically styled posters in the early 1890s which were very much of the La Belle Époque era—where Paris was racy and fashionable all at once. And Bonnard along with Toulouse Lautrec and a number of others brought that onto the streets. 

Our focus in the exhibition is on his mature work from about 1912 onwards. Having been very successful, rather than coasting along on that success, he goes into a period of revising his approach to his work. He invested much more in colour and pushed what he can do with the way he viewed the world, the compositions that he constructs and the way in which he can really make some extraordinarily challenging colour juxtapositions that many other artists would hold back from. He’s an extraordinary painter, he’s an extraordinary colourist.

 

RD: Picasso, when questioned about Bonnard once famously said:

"Don't talk to me about Bonnard. 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. If he looks long enough, he winds up adding a little yellow, instead of making up his mind what colour the sky really ought to be. Painting can't be done that way. Painting isn't a question of sensibility: it's a matter of seizing the power, taking over from nature, not expecting her to supply you with information and good advice ... that's what I hold against Bonnard. I don't want to be moved by him. He's not really a modern painter: he obeys nature; he doesn't transcend it."

A bold statement. Was it common for other painters to be opposed to his work?

Gale: It’s an interesting one, and we’ve included that in the catalogue in order to address this. Very often one is so bound up in an artist that it’s quite unusual to include such searing criticism, especially from such a prominent voice. I would tend to move to Bonnard’s defence. 

Dining Room in the Country 1913

Picasso talks about needing strength and determination and coming to an immediate decision, making intellectual decisions that are of the moment and then moving on. Picasso is incredibly productive, he may produce one canvas a day and that is just not how Bonnard works, he returned to a canvas many times over a six-year period. He’s not pushing them through in quite the same way and as a consequence the way of working is completely different. That’s what Picasso what criticising him for. 

Picasso saw him as indecisive but I think he's misreading Bonnard and also possibly—this is probably where the context is important—might have also just been exasperated with him in that particular moment in the immediate post-war years. 

 

RD: Matisse and Bonnards both loved using colour, did their friendship influence their paintings?

Gale: He had a purpose in making his work and would take ideas from other people, as every great painter does but I tend to have left the word “influence” behind me as I think people stimulate each other but they are doing it in different ways. 

Nude Crouching in the Tub 1918

At the outbreak of the First World War, Bonnard was in his late forties, he’s already a mature artist and yet he’s revising his practice—he’s willing to take on bits and pieces from the different things he’s looking at. Early on in his career he’s looking at Japanese art and Roman sculptures and thinking about the visual impression on his eyes, but obviously he also responds to what Matisse and Picasso and Braque and many others are doing around him. 

 

RD: Marthe de Meligny, Bonnard’s wife, was often the focus of his work—what inspiration did she draw from him?

Gale: It’s extremely difficult for us to tell what the relationship was like, all we have is the evidence from the paintings and the accounts that other people gave us. And what we get subsequently was that Meligny was a cantankerous and increasingly misanthropic figure. The consensus of opinion was that she was slipping into some long-term mental illness. 


Nude in the Bath 1936

What you see in the paintings—and I think this speaks to the sense of Bonnard trying to hold onto the cherished moments in time—are instances where he captures her in her daily activity. We tend to read them and think He’s painted that in for arguments sake, it’s the way he saw her in 1935 but that may not be the case, maybe that he’s referring to earlier drawings or maybe he’s recuperating something from much further in the past. 

There’s something nostalgic in his work that’s overlaid on his portrayal of Meligny going around her business. It tends to be very focused in a domestic world; she’s feeding the cat, laying the table, bathing, reading, very everyday activities which Bonnard then manages to take to a different level of our appreciation through the qualities of his work the formal composition that he uses, the glimpse of the mirror, reflections, the fall of light and through the colour.

 

RD: So it must be easy for the viewer to imagine themselves in these domestic scenes?

Gale: Yes. It’s also quite challenging because when you do, it’s sometimes very difficult to think where you are physically in the space. Partly because he uses reflections and glimpses through spaces but as you look, it becomes richer because it’s not a photograph, it’s the opposite of that reality.

Coffee 1915

"Bonnard repays careful looking"

RD: Bonnard has many paintings of various muses but scarcely any of himself, the self-portraits he did paint exude an air of loneliness—was he opposed to making himself the centre of attention?

Gale: Even in his youth he’s described as being a quiet person. It is in the nature of self-portraits (unless someone is doing a dramatic Rubens-style portrait) to be a self-scrutiny so it tends to be an isolating process. I think the thing that is really extraordinary about Bonnard’s self-portraits is not only the sense of loneliness but a sense of existential anxiety that comes out the way that he portrays himself. He seems to be revealing a struggle with life that you wouldn’t expect from the rest of his work.

Self Portrait 1938

RD: What advice would you give to an art novice when viewing Bonnard's work for the first time?

Gale: Enjoy the colour, think about what it can do for you and look really carefully, because Bonnard repays careful looking. He conceals details in his painting. Not in a puzzle way, but the more you look the more you see.


The C C Land Exhibition: Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory is at Tate Modern 23 January – 6 May 2019.