Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) skipped Fauvism and Cubism, the major movements of his time, in pursuit of something more personal. “I do not belong to any school,” he famously said in 1891. “I am only trying to do something personal, and I am trying to unlearn what I worked so hard to learn during four years at the École des Beaux-Arts.”
Tate Modern has organised a brilliant tribute to the quintessential French painter called the Colour of Memory at the Eyal Ofer Galleries. The title of the exhibition captures colour and memory as the two most important features of Bonnard’s work. Early on in his career, Bonnard said that Japanese prints taught him “that colour could express all things without needing modelling or relief…that it was possible to translate light, form and character with nothing more than colour.”
While Bonnard is typically categorized as a neo-Impressionist, he has certainly been influenced by the brilliant colours of the Fauves. On a trip to Saint-Tropez in 1909, Bonnard was stunned by the Mediterranean colours, “the sea, the yellow walls, the shadows as coloured as the light”.
Bonnard was particularly unusual for famously painting only from memory and never from real life. He wrote in his diary every day with a small sketch accompanied by a few words about the weather: rainy, warm, sunny, damp etc. ‘Le temps’ is French for time as well as weather and for Bonnard, his datebook was an archive of both. Through these simple annotations, his imagination was nourished and his works came to be.
Foliage and tropical skies fill huge canvases with views of greenish water and crimson rooftops. The exhibition challenges the dismissal and critique of Bonnard as simply, a ‘painter of happiness’. Tate’s curators draw on specific events in the artist’s life like the illness of his wife Marthe de Méligny, the suicide of his lover as well as the First World War, to showcase the complex turmoil beneath the colour.
A garden boasting heavenly colours from 1917 shows war guns upon a closer examination. Bonnard’s late focus on landscapes, blissful as they may be, reflect his isolation, complicated love life and the walks around the house in which his wife confined herself in.
The exhibition isn’t just about painting from memory or capturing colour or light. Bonnard worked on some of his works for years, obsessing over colour and composition, referring back to photos and constantly modifying shapes. That’s when the importance of memory comes in. When Bonnard paints Marthe, his wife, he either paints her with beauty and passion or filled with sadness due to her late illness. This strikes as a way to perhaps hold on those times. He paints Marthe along with his mistress after they had both died, it rings as though he’s trying to bring them back to life.
Dina Vierny, who modelled for Bonnard, once went to the Salon d’Automne with him. “All of a sudden, I saw Bonnard pull paint and a brush from his pocket and start retouching the paintings which no longer belonged to him,” Vierny wrote. “Bonnard, what are you doing? We’re going to get arrested!” Vierny exclaimed. “You be the lookout,” he replied.
‘Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory’ is at Tate Modern, London, until 6 May.