Pierre Bonnard, Tate Modern, review: colour elevates the ordinary into the sublime

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Pierre Bonnard
Dining room in the Country (1913)

Tate could hardly have happened on a better moment – the middle of the winter’s coldest snap so far – to open an exhibition that throws windows and doors open on to sun-drenched gardens, lingering over languorous lunches that no one seems in any hurry to clear away – the work of an artist for whom even taking a bath becomes a sultry, meditative activity.

Capturing a quintessentially French, middle-class world engaged in apparently permanent leisure, Pierre Bonnard seems, at first, almost too easy to like: his shimmering, iridescent surfaces too pretty for their own good. But from the start of this, his biggest British exhibition in 20 years, The Colour of Memory, which brings together 100 works from his mature career (1900-1946) when colour became his principle preoccupation, Bonnard feels an uneasy figure. 

It’s not just that he looks rather uncomfortable in the various films and photographs: myopic, chain-smoking and sporting a muffler, even in brilliant sunshine. It’s that, as an artist, he is oddly difficult to quantify. Was Bonnard the “last impressionist”, as he described himself? Or – as the show’s curators believe – a far more modern and radical figure, on a par with his friend and almost exact contemporary, Henri Matisse? Does his work offer a poignant, Proustian sense of the passing of time, or a world in which time has effectively stopped? Was he an “artist of happiness”, as he has been described, or of melancholy, even depression? 

Man and Woman (1900), the earliest painting in the exhibition, features a woman (Marthe de Meligny, Bonnard’s partner – later wife – of 50 years) sitting naked on a bed, as the man (Bonnard) performs post-coital ablutions. While de Meligny features endlessly in Bonnard’s paintings, he himself appears only in a series of agitated self-portraits: men and the male world of work and action (as it was certainly seen then) are absent from the domestic scenes that form the core of his work.

Dining Room in the Country (1913), the show’s first large painting, is classic Bonnard in its interplay of interior and exterior, of direct and reflected light. A woman leans over a window sill towards us, in a scene seemingly bathed in the light of a very hot, bright day. The white tabletop in the foreground is reduced to a solid mass of lilac, while every other surface pulsates with dabs of iridescent colour: magenta overlain by burnt orange, turquoise merging into lemon yellow in the reflected gleam on the door. The effect is seductive, even quietly spectacular. 

Nude crouching in the bath (1918) Credit: Patrice Schmidt

Yet you can understand Picasso’s complaint on standing before a Bonnard painting, “That’s piddling art!”. Where you can imagine Picasso (or, more appropriately, Matisse, given his similar focus on colour and observation) slicing this scene apart before recreating it in their own image, Bonnard feels his way gradually into his paintings, as though he’s knitting them before our eyes. Alone among the impressionists, Bonnard worked not directly from reality, but from memory – synthesising images from drawings and recollections. Consequently, his application can feel slightly woolly.

The exhibition orders the works strictly chronologically, attempting to chart minutely the course of Bonnard’s thinking and painterly technique. While this is welcome in principle, it makes for a slightly awkward jumble of genres – domestic scenes, still lifes and landscapes – with truly remarkable paintings randomly placed beside less-than-riveting works. A bit of discreet reshuffling might have created some genuinely stunning sequences.  

Bonnard’s still lifes are never quite exciting, as though he’s not sure himself why he’s doing them. And he seems oddly adrift in the wide-open spaces of pure landscape, needing the enclosure of the suburban garden – where, however lush the vegetation, you can always glimpse the neighbouring houses – to really be himself.

Elevating petit-bourgeois ordinariness through colour is an essential part of Bonnard’s appeal. His relatively small The Open Window, Yellow Wall (1919) is an exquisite example, where a patterned internal wall glows in the light reflected from the almost incandescent view outside. 

But the key to his work lies in his paintings of de Meligny, whose lissom, long-legged form appears endlessly in his paintings – and almost always naked – peering at herself in mirrors, bent over old-fashioned zinc baths, or sprawled full-length in modern ones. The fact that she’s wearing high-heeled shoes in many of these bathroom scenes lends an air of corny sexiness to what would otherwise be very natural and candid images, but which are actually very far from that. 

Man and Woman (1900) featuring Bonnard himself and his wife Credit: Tony Querrec/© Photo RMN 

You don’t have to spend long in the show to notice that from its beginning to its end (a period of nearly 50 years) de Meligny’s body remains that of a 20-year-old. She suffered from severe psychological problems and used “bathing cures” – endless protracted baths – as treatment for both her real and imaginary physical ailments; her husband became, according to some observers, effectively prisoner in his own home. A great deal of cod-psychologising has been expended on this aspect of Bonnard’s art, though the exhibition texts touch on it only fleetingly.

While it’s difficult to imagine that Bonnard wasn’t attempting, on some level, to keep the idyll of their earlier relationship alive in paint, that isn’t the immediate feeling that emanates from these paintings. Indeed, there is nothing sinister, demoralised or nostalgic about a work such as the spectacular Nude in the Bath (1936), a shimmering, tremulous study in reflected light in which the fragmented colours of the rather dingy bathroom achieve a transcendent, hallucinatory radiance. His personal anguish, meanwhile, is reserved for a series of terse self-portraits in which he reduces himself to a harassed, red-tinted near-silhouette.

While colour and space become more abstract and figures more stylised over the course of the exhibition, the process is so gradual you barely notice it from room to room. The exhibition is about the triumph of colour as a kind of universal life-force, over the indignities and mundanities of individual experience. For much of it, you feel cut adrift in Bonnard’s world. And that is a privilege in itself.

From tomorrow until May 6; 020 7887 8888; tate.org.uk  

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