LONDON — Who needs to be reminded, with yet another exhibition, about the importance of the fundamental elements of painting: light, color, and composition? Going back to these basics feels formalist and passé. One doesn’t have to go to a gallery to see works of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, which found their way into mainstream culture a long time ago: they’re everywhere, from cushions and jigsaw puzzles to phone cases and gym leggings. Yet, here I am, mesmerized by Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory, now on view at the Tate Modern.
On the one hand, it is startling to see Tate staging an exhibition revolving around the same old themes and an artist who has already been the subject of countless shows around the world. On the other hand, Bonnard’s somewhat ambivalent position in the canon of modernism warrants further examination. For his younger colleagues, who experimented with Cubism and Expressionism, Bonnard represented an artist who never moved forward with the evolving styles of his time. Picasso called Bonnard’s paintings a “potpourri of indecision” and accused him of not being intellectual enough.
The exhibition does not fixate on Bonnard’s supposed “indecision,” but subverts it into an exploration of his practice. The artist had never been fully appreciative of painting from life and in his mature period worked exclusively from memory. However, his paintings are more than just impressionistic accounts of past events. They resemble visual diary entries, often revisited and rewritten as his memories changed. As I walked through the chronologically showcased works in the Tate’s galleries, I traced his experiments with color. It becomes clear that, as the years passed by, Bonnard’s palette gradually became more daring and less conventional.
The Tate advises “slow-looking” in the exhibition, but one doesn’t really need to be told to pay close attention when surrounded by these immersive, kaleidoscopic images. Spending most of his time outside of the cultural hub of Paris, Bonnard focused on contemplating his surroundings: his house, the pastoral landscapes of the French Riviera, his wife. Despite the sameness of their subjects, his paintings never grow repetitive or redundant; each possesses a distinct vibrancy. Large-scale paintings like “The Summer” (1917) invite you to trace the brushstrokes and patterns on their surfaces: they are delicate, loose, and expressive, creating shimmering landscapes reflective of the turmoil and uncertainty of the time.
The emotional power of Bonnard’s works is especially evident in the many paintings of his wife and favorite model, Marthe, who struggled with various illnesses throughout her life. She is depicted in quiet, everyday situations: taking remedial baths, changing her clothes. In “Nude in the Bath” (1936), the water is blurry, and the boundary between the bathtub and the rest of the room is obscured, making it look like Marthe’s frail, elongated body is being swallowed by her surroundings.
Apart from paintings, the exhibit features a number of photographs by André Ostier and Henri Cartier-Bresson documenting Bonnard’s studio in the south of France. They offer insight into his private life, showing him surrounded by friends and family.
In one gallery, paintings are stripped away from their frames, recalling the way in which Bonnard usually worked. Instead of using easels, he painted on canvases hanging directly on walls. By this point in the exhibition, I had gotten used to seeing his paintings adorned with ornately carved, gilded frames, so the frames’ removal offered a fresh perspective. This small gesture from the museum dramatically increases the distance between the institution and the artworks. In turn, it immediately evokes an image of Bonnard sitting in front of his paintings, hands on his knees, sifting through his memories.
Towards the end of Bonnard’s life, his paintings became more disorganized, chaotic, and abstract, showing signs of melancholy after the loss of his wife. Landscapes do not remind of any particular season; the artist looks haunted in his self-portraits. It becomes difficult to discern between the shadows and the snow, the silhouette and the background.
The exhibition discusses the obvious aspects of Bonnard’s art, but by choosing to only focus on his mature period — beginning in 1912, when color became a chief concern, until his death in 1947 — it guarantees a carefully picked selection of mesmerizing paintings. By revisiting his legacy, the Tate offers a more nuanced view of Bonnard’s work, portraying him not as a “painter of happiness,” as many critics have called him, but a painter of incredible skill and sensitivity.
Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory, curated by Matthew Gale, Head of Displays, with Assistant Curators Helen O’Malley and Juliette Rizzi is on view at the Tate Modern (Bankside, London SE1 9TG) through May 6, 2019.