This fleeting moment of intimacy, immortalised in paint by the Post-Impressionist painter Pierre Bonnard, not only illustrates his unparalleled ability to capture the transient, intimate scenes of domestic life, but also his bold experimentation with composition, time and space. The more you scrutinise La Toilette, 1914, the more it bewitches: decorative details unfurl unexpectedly; compositional complexities challenge perspective; her wry smile seduces. This nude portrait hanging at the heart of the new Tate Modern Pierre Bonnard exhibition exemplifies Bonnard's mastery of colour and composition, both major themes underpinning the exhibition narrative.
But for a man who was once described by Henri Matisse as ‘the greatest of us all,’ time has been unkind to Bonnard. Doomed by the shadow of his looming Impressionist predecessors, and by the loudness of his modernist contemporaries, Bonnard’s voice has been largely drowned out over the years.
Pierre Bonnard, Nude in the Bath, 1936-8
The first major Pierre Bonnard exhibition in the UK in 20 years, however, seeks to redress this oversight, casting a new light on the innovative and complex compositions of this much-loved French painter. Bringing together around 100 of his greatest works, this chronological overview, spanning four decades between 1912 and his death in 1947, traces Bonnard's bold experimentation with composition and colour, as well as the influence of memory and time on his creative process in the latter years of his career.
Sensuous images of everyday life dominate: there are nudes bathing; coffee drinkers gazing out of windows; lovers glancing furtively at one another. But what really intrigues is their unusual composition. Framed from awkward points of view and unexpected angles, these pictures shift perspective, and encourage you to look anew. Painted from memory in Bonnard’s studio, these scenes of mundane domesticity represent moments lost in time. Offering a glimpse into an idealised world, they are both melancholic and nostalgic, yet reassuring and comforting.
Beyond these captivating figures in flux, though, are plentiful still lives, landscapes, and street scenes. Although best known as a painter of the interior and domestic scene, Bonnard, Tate argues, frequently engaged with the world around him. The Fourteenth of July, 1918, is an eloquent example of such activity and adeptly introduces us to another side of Bonnard's painterly repetroire. The composition, painted in a blurry whirl of blues and reds, depicts a raucous crowd thronging with soldiers in front of a bandstand during a moment of patriotic celebration.
Pierre Bonnard, Nude in Bath and Small Dog, 1941-6
By the early 1920s though, increasingly away from Paris, we see a dramatic shift in Bonnard’s colouring. Although his choice of subject matter mirrors earlier works, Bonnard starts experimenting with sharply contrasting colours and a deeply saturated palette. Indeed, by 1927, after the purchase of a modest house in Le Cannet in the south of France, rich shades of orange, red and yellow flood his sun-drenched canvases as never before. Declared 'the painter of happiness' by contemporary critics after a successful exhibition in 1933, Bonnard went on to enjoy bountiful years. But his personal life was plagued by tragedy: in 1942, after years of suffering and ill-health, his life-long muse-turned-wife Marthe de Meligny died of a heart attack, leaving Bonnard isolated and alone.
Bonnard encourages us to stand still, to allow time to freeze around us, and to step into a moment in the past, preserved before us as it appeared before him – first in memory, later in paint, and now almost a century old. This meandering exhibition is long, and the narrative is weak in parts, not least in context and anecdotal facts, but persevere and you will reap the rewards.
Offering a much-needed burst of colour, Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory leaves you feeling light-of-step and inspired at a time when you need it most.
|What||Review: Pierre Bonnard exhibition, Tate Modern|
|Where||Tate Modern, Bankside, London, SE1 9TG | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Southwark (underground)|
23 Jan 19 – 06 May 19, 10:00 AM – 4:30 PM
|Website||Please click here for more information|