The Colour Of Memory

The entrance to the Pierre Bonnard exhibition at Tate Modern is a portal through a giant detail reproduction taken from his painting The Garden of 1936. It’s perhaps his best painting. It’s the one that most draws me in, most like a garden itself with it’s abstract disposition of marks and colours, it reminds me of paintings by Patrick Heron and Gillian Ayres. And there are other paintings here that bring to mind Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, Howard Hodgkin, David Hockney. But before all of that, we’re straightaway into a red gallery with ‘hot’ paintings of Bonnard’s mistress, full-frontal nudes and a post-coital bedroom scene. The gardening comes later.

Young Women in the Garden, 1921-3/1945-6

An unusual high viewpoint, reminiscent of a snap-shot, allows the seated and standing figures to be held within the same frame. The woman in profile at the right has been identified as Bonnard’s companion Marthe de Méligny. The central figure is Renée Monchaty, with whom he had an affair. Bonnard began the painting in the 1920s, then set it aside for more than twenty years. The long interruption may be linked to Bonnard’s complex relationship with these two women. Returning to the canvas after the deaths of both Méligny and Monchaty, he recaptured their presence.

‘I leave it… I come back… I do not let myself become absorbed by the object itself’

The paintings of Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) create a remarkable sense of intimacy. Many of them allow glimpses into a private world, depicting the domestic life that Bonnard shared with his companion, Marthe de Méligny.

Although these works lovingly record the details of daily life, they do not simply transcribe what the artist saw. An initial moment of inspiration would be remembered, reflected upon, and reimagined as he composed his paintings in the studio. Rarely satisfied with his first effort, he often worked on each canvas over several months or even years.

‘Young Women in the Garden’ is one of the most extreme examples of a painting made over a long period of time. Having started work in 1921-3, Bonnard put the canvas aside for many years before revisiting and revising it in 1945-6. Resuming his work was part of an attempt to rediscover the original experience, bringing it into the present without losing its place in the past.

Beginning around 1900, this exhibition focuses on his mature work, as he developed a highly individual command of colour. Organised chronologically, it explores the presence of time and memory in Bonnard’s sensuous images of everyday life.

Man and Woman, 1900

Naked in a bedroom, a couple are clearly having a sexual relationship. Those who knew them would have recognised the figures as Marthe de Méligny and Pierre Bonnard. The painting can be seen as a public assertion of their bohemian lifestyle. The couple met in 1893 but did not marry until 1925. Their relationship lasted for fifty years.

In the Bathroom, 1907

Defying convention, Pierre Bonnard and Marthe de Méligny lived as a couple for thirty years before marrying in 1925. These paintings from the first years of the twentieth century capture their intimate world.

His paintings of de Méligny capture incidental moments in the day, especially as she bathed and dressed. She sought treatment at spa towns and regularly took baths as a remedy for various illnesses. From glimpses of her daily activities, Bonnard constructed an idealised vision of their life together that remained a key element of his work.

Marthe standing next to a chair in the garden at Montval, 1900

Pierre Bonnard examining the foliage of a tree, 1900

In 1900 they had photographed each other naked in a summer garden, resembling a modern Adam and Eve. These informal snaps inspired some of Bonnard’s compositions. More generally, photography helped him to move away from the conventional poses of artists’ models.

Open Window Towards the Seine (Vernon), c.1911

Around 1912, when he was already in his mid-forties, Bonnard altered the direction of his painting. His early success in the 1890s had been with decorative and fashionable work. Now he began to explore the possibilities of colour in an entirely individual way. Other artists of his generation, such as Henri Matisse, earned the nickname ‘fauves’ (wild beasts) for their use of raw colour. Bonnard took up the challenge, enriching his colour combinations.

At the same time, he focused increasingly on landscape. Bonnard bought his first car in 1911, and made trips to explore the countryside around Paris. He regularly spent extended periods in southern France, and his paintings were infused with the powerful light that he experienced there. His mother’s home at Le Grand-Lemps in the Dauphiné, south-east France, was another favourite location. In 1912 he bought a small house at Vernonnet in Normandy which he called ‘Ma Roulotte’ (My Caravan). The house and its surroundings immediately became subjects for his work.

The Toilette, 1914

Bonnard worked on this painting (sometimes known as ‘The Pink Toilette’) in 1914 and again in 1921. The unusual composition, as a woman looks at her reflection while drying herself, may relate to his interest in photography. As in other works, Bonnard uses the mirror to challenge ideas of space and time. By showing two completely different aspects of the pose in the nude in the foreground and her reflection, he suggests the movement of an outstretched arm.

View from Uhlenhorst Ferry House on the Outer Alster Lake with St Johannis, 1913

Here Bonnard captures one of his favourite subjects: a bustling crowd. The foreground figures are positioned so that we can see through them to the regatta in the harbour. This contributes to the sense of immediacy captured in the energetic brushwork. Bonnard travelled to Hamburg with his friend the painter Edouard Vuillard and other artists at the invitation of Alfred Lichtwark, the Director of the Kunsthalle, the city’s museum. Bonnard’s painting shows his response to new sights and experiences as he travelled.

Lane at Vernonnet, 1912-14

Dining Room in the Country, 1913

Bonnard’s innovative exploration of colour really took off around 1912-13. Here the crisp light of the garden contrasts with the responding glow of the interior. Each has a linking element, as light pours in through the doorway while the woman’s red blouse extends the interior colouring out into the garden. This was one of the first paintings to show Bonnard’s response to the landscape around his home in Normandy.

Summer, 1917

The Open Window, Yellow Wall, c.1919

Normandy Landscape, 1920

The view of Bonnard’s garden at Vernonnet was a constant source of inspiration for him. He felt an affinity for the land, which he explored on daily walks. He even spontaneously bought an ancient tree to save it from being sold for planking by a local farmer. In these works made in 1920, he used the high viewpoint from his house to fill the canvas with colour and detail. Bonnard did not paint in front of the landscape or scene he depicted, but relied on his memory.

The Open French Window, Vernon, c.1921

The Door Opening onto the Garden, c.1924

Made three years apart, these two paintings of the door and window at Vernonnet show how Bonnard worked through colour variations on a repeated theme, suggesting different seasons and different moods. Working from memory, he emphasised the details that first inspired: a glimpse of the river, perhaps, or light reflected in the door.

House among the Trees, 1918

The Garden Seen from the Terrace, 1924

In the early 1920s Bonnard used both new and familiar subjects to explore the possibilities of colour and composition. He was now increasingly away from Paris, but still exhibited there every year. Working independently of his contemporaries, he developed a more individual approach. He would go beyond natural appearances to intensify colour on the canvas, and set sharply contrasting colours alongside each other.

His house at Vernonnet was a constant source of inspiration. Many of the paintings he made there show the relationship between interior and exterior, man-made and natural environments. Each painting recorded subtle shifts in the fall of light, and used colour to bring different elements together.

View of the River, Vernon, 1923

The Violet Fence, 1923

Stretching across the width of the canvas, the fence divides off the foreground in this painting and contrasts with the exuberant greenery beyond. Bonnard was starting to use strong horizontal bands as a compositional device. During 1923 he was primarily working in Le Cannet, near Cannes in the south of France. At one stage he and de Méligny stayed in the evocatively named villa ‘Le Rêve’ (The Dream). They bought a house in the town soon afterwards.

Landscape; Young Girl with a Goat, c.1925

Detail – Landscape; Young Girl with a Goat

The Table, 1925

The Dining Room, Vernon, c.1925

This work belongs to the series of paintings showing the related interior and exterior spaces in Bonnard’s house at Vernonnet. As well as filling the canvas with colour, he included two figures, while a reflection in the door may indicate the presence of a third. De Méligny is shown bending towards the dog whose expectant nose peeks just above the edge of the table. The two figures wear clothes that bring together all the colours ranged across the painting. This was an ambitious undertaking and Bonnard controlled the structure through the rhythm of verticals created by the door and window frames.

The paintings in this room were all made in 1925. A number have been taken out of their frames in order to give a sense of how they appeared when Bonnard was working on them. He usually pinned his canvas directly on the wall, rather than using an artist’s easel. This had several advantages for him. His compositions could grow to fill the space of the canvas and he could work on several paintings side by side. It also allowed him to roll up his canvases and take them with him as he travelled around France.

Looking at the unframed pictures reveals that Bonnard painted very close to the edge of his piece of canvas. Sometimes he painted in a line around the edge to show where the frame would be. When, finally, the canvases were stretched and framed by his dealers Bernheim-Jeune, they were no longer part of Bonnard’s private world and became objects entering the public realm.

The Bath, 1925

The reclining female nude is a recurrent subject in European art. Bonnard’s images of de Méligny’s therapeutic bathing introduce a new element, showing how different the body looks under water. This is the first, and simplest, of four paintings addressing this theme that he made over the following twenty years. Here de Méligny stretches across the width of the canvas, so that the composition can be divided into a series of horizontal bands: the tiled wall, the white of the bath, the immersed body, the rim and the floor.

The White Tablecloth, 1925

Detail – The White Tablecloth

Palm Tree at Le Cannet, 1924

Bonnard spent the winter of 1924-5 in Le Cannet, near Cannes, on the French Riviera. Staying in a villa called ‘Le Rêve’ (The Dream), he immediately responded to the strong light and lush vegetation that he associated with the region. He would buy a house in the same area two years later. ‘Palm Tree at Le Cannet’ is one of his most condensed paintings of this landscape. He fills the canvas so that we become immersed and involved in the scene.

Landscape at Le Cannet, 1928

This painting depicts the view from the hill above Bonnard’s home. The roof of his house, ‘Le Bosquet’, sits at the centre of the canvas, surrounded by trees. The peaks of the Estérel mountains are visible across the bay. A male figure reclines in the foreground, perhaps representing Bonnard himself. Despite his prominent position on the canvas, the use of green and yellow tones means that the figure blends into the landscape.

Nude at her Bath, 1931

A female figure rests on the edge of the bathtub in a moment of distraction. Her face is turned away from the viewer. The pile of clothes on the chair creates an abstract pattern. The sense of abstraction is heightened by the tile design of the floor and the unidentifiable white form that enters the frame from the right-hand side of the canvas.

The Garden, c.1936

This painting depicts the artist’s garden at ‘Le Bosquet’. Bonnard’s technique of constructing through memory gave him the flexibility to experiment with both perspective and colour. He creates an explosion of coloured foliage and vegetation. The effect is immersive, placing us as viewers in the garden and inviting our eyes to wander, taking in our surroundings.

Detail – The Garden

The entrance to the Bonnard exhibition at Tate Modern is through a doorway surrounded by a blown-up detail of this painting, as if we are stepping into The Garden. It’s my favourite Bonnard painting.

Steps in the Artist’s Garden, 1942-4

Bonnard worked on this painting over two years marked by loss and suffering. Martha de Méligny died in January 1942, leaving the artist without his life-long companion. In 1944 Allied forces invaded southern France, bringing the Second World War closer to Bonnard’s home. During this troubled period, he found solace in his daily encounters with nature.

The Studio with Mimosa, 1939-46

‘I am just beginning to understand what it is to paint. A painter should have two lives, one in which to learn, and one in which to practise his art.’

Detail – The Studio with Mimosa

Bonnard explored a range of subjects during the war years, particularly landscape. Travel restrictions prevented him from driving freely around France, so he explored the local area more closely. Taking daily walks through Le Cannet, he captured views of the village rooftops, the Mediterranean Sea and the mountains of Estérel. His approach became more abstract, enriching colour while reducing detail in works such as ‘Steps in the Artist’s Garden’ and ‘Bathers at the End of the Day’.

Detail – The Studio with Mimosa

Bonnard maintained his focus on landscape in the final years of his life. One of the most powerful works from this period is ‘The Studio with Mimosa’. In a characteristic interplay between interior and exterior, the mimosa blossoms provide an explosion of vibrant yellow through the studio window. As ever, Bonnard’s observation of nature was just a starting point. His heightened combination of colours was guided by what he called ‘the first emotion’ prompted by the scene. The transcended reality achieved in this painting bears testament to Bonnard’s vision.

Almond Tree in Blossom, 1946-7

Bonnard could see the almond tree in the garden at ‘Le Bosquet’ from his bedroom window. ‘Every spring it forces me to paint it’, he said. This was his final painting. When he was too weak to paint, he asked his nephew his nephew, Charles Terrasse, to alter the colouring of a patch of ground from green to yellow. Bonnard passed away in January 1947.

Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory

Frames of reference

2 thoughts on “The Colour Of Memory”

  1. Thanks for taking us to the Bonnard show at the Tate Modern. We on the the other side of the Atlantic greatly appreciate it.

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