MORE years ago than I wish to reveal I saw my first paintings by Pierre Bonnard. It surprised me. In a side room in the late Helen Lessore's gallery above Bond Street, I saw a huge canvas of a woman lying full length in her bath. Like some great golden seal, sunlight streamed over her body, its sparkle only broken by pearly half-shadows before tumbling into the water which touched her like a gentle caress. It was painted in the house Bonnard bought in 1926 at Le Bosquet, a village above Cannes on the Cote d'Azur. All the paintings and drawings he did there are the subject of the exhibition at the Hayward Gallery on the South Bank, London until August 29th.
The woman in the bath is Marthe, his wife and frequent though reluctant model. There are paintings of `Marthe in the Dining Room', `Marthe at Breakfast', Marthe in `The Red Dress' and lots of Marthe in the bathroom. Extremely shy and withdrawn she was obsessed with the ritual of bathing and anointing herself which took many hours each day. Various stages of her toilette became the source of a whole series of paintings. They simply record the event with none of the sensual, voyeuristic overtones to be found in Degas' or Renoir's long series of nudes. Marthe's passion for cleanliness was unusual. Living in Paris some forty years later I had the impression that bathing did not figure high on the list of French priorities.
About 1928 Edouard Vuillard, Bonnard's life-long friend, painted him standing in profile, thin and neat in jacket and trousers, inspecting a large landscape painting pinned to the wall. He is in the undistinguished modern room with bare walls in which he chose to paint. Looking at the portrait and the paintings of rooms in the villa at Le Bosquet so recognisable to us as similar to our own, it is hard to credit that Bonnard belonged to a completely different era. He was born in 1867. Professor Lawrence Gowing reminds us: `Bonnard was singular among the painters of the Belle Epoch in that he was perfectly aware while it was in progress that the beauty of the epoch was unprecedented.' The son of an official in the War Ministry he was destined for the law. But even before he passed his examinations he had enrolled in the Academie Julien.
At the Academie he became friends with Paul Serusier, Maurice Denis, Felix Vallaton and Vuillard. Goaded by Gauguin and led by Serusier they formed, in 1888, a short-lived movement -- the Nabis, recently the subject of a hugely popular exhibition in Paris. They painted in flat pure colours and embraced a quasi-religious symbolism. They were anti-impressionism. In 1889 Bonnard received a commission for a poster. `France Champagne' was seen all over Paris. It attracted the attention of Toulouse-Lautrec and the major critics of the day -- Thadie Natanson, owner of La Revue Blanche, Gustave Geffroy and Claude Roger Marx. Bonnard became part of the avant-garde Natanson coterie, spending many weekends at their hospitable country house where Renoir, Vuillard, Vallaton, Lautrec, the composer Debussy, and the poet, Stephane Mallarme, paid court to Misia, their kind and fascinating hostess. All the artists painted her over and over again.
In 1896 the dealer, Durand-Ruel, gave Bonnard his first one-man exhibition. Camille Pissaro saw it and was horrified. `Yet another Symbolist has perpetrated a fiasco', he wrote to his son Lucien. Soon afterwards Bonnard changed his painting style. Robert Rosenblum, Professor of Fine Arts at New York University in his unlikely but wonderfully appealing and erudite book The Dog in Art from Rococo to Post Modernism, describes an 1893 lithograph thus: 'In the 1890s Pierre Bonnard created the supplest variations of a sweetly untroubled, middle-class Paris. In both his indoor and outdoor vignettes we can almost savour Proustian memories of the quiet comforting rhythms of French domesticity at its most refined, whether in the nursery, the dining room, or the market street. Domesticated animals figure throughout, gently cushioning interiors as they do even an open street. . . Sensitive to the most flickering nuances of patterned, almost textiled surfaces in the medium of paint, watercolour or print, Bonnard nearly camouflages this frisky canine society in a flurry of graphic shorthand. in Bonnard's view, so different from Seurat's, the streets of Paris offer an enchanting playground for dogs'.
Along with other Nabis, Bonnard had a commitment to the applied arts. He designed furniture, stained glass, book illustrations and decorative panels. Some of them can be seen today in the Musde d'Orsay. His style became intimist, a form of impressionist technique applied more to the depiction of everyday life in the domestic interior than to landscape.
To think of the years at Le Bosquet one must include Marthe. By then she had bobbed hair, wore high heeled shoes and chic, simple Chanel-style dresses that would be as fashionable today as they were in 1926. Yet she too belonged to La Belle Epoch. She was a Paris shop girl when Bonnard met her in 1893. Displaying that reluctance to matrimony so common among the artists of the day -- Renoir, Monet and most disgracefully, Rodin -- Bonnard did not marry her until 1925. Their lives were calm until she became disturbed and agrophobic towards the end. Bonnard would go for an early morning walk with his dog, Poucette, returning with scribbled sketches of moments seen. After breakfast he went to his studio. He hardly ever painted in front of his subject. For him it was the intensity of the first moment of perception that he wished to preserve and, as he described it, that could only be retained in the calm of the studio.
Bonnard's paintings of unremarkable subjects are transformed by his vibrant colours, and an extraordinary ability to understand and transmit the quality of light. `The French Window' of 1929 is a perfect fusion of blues, whites and gold. We see Bonnard's head reflected in the mirror behind Marthe at her desk in a blue dress. The mid-day sun shines on the distant landscape and pierces the little sitting-room to bright and centre-jour effect. To own such a painting would, I imagine, give nothing but pleasure. Certainly Bonnard did not lack admiring collectors on both sides of the Atlantic. By the outbreak of World War 11 he was both rich and famous. Along with his neighbour, Matisse, Bonnard remained in Le Bosquet during the war, earning a certain odium for their tacit acceptance of the infamous Vichy regime. But they were already old men. Bonnard was eighty when he died in 1947.
The exhibition shows his last painting, a favourite tree. In `The Almond Tree in Blossom', painted in 1946, the artist's hand is uncertain, pale stabs of white against a typical blue/pink/violet sky. One departs feeling one has had a delightsome experience. But the question nags -- was Bonnard a great painter or just a very good one? Are domestic interiors, a few landscapes, no matter how sparkling, enough?
I turn once more to that discriminating dealer, Rend Gimpel who was not Bonnard's dealer (Bonnard was faithful for thirty-six years to Bernheim-Jeune). Gimpel considered him `un maitre moyen', a medium master. His criticism was that, coming after the impressionists he created nothing new. Picasso was less tolerant. `Don't talk to me about Bonnard ... That's not painting . . . He doesn't know how to choose. When Bonnard paints a sky, perhaps he first paints it blue, more or less the way it looks. Then he looks a little longer and sees some mauve, so he adds a touch or two of mauve, just to hedge. Then he decides that maybe it's a little pink too, so there's no reason not to add some pink. The result is a pot-pourri of indecision'. Here speaks a satyr versus a romantic.
Bonnard and Matisse were mutually admiring; but there is nothing of the excitement of Matisse in Bonnard's oeuvre. For me Matisse's images remain in the memory: Bonnard's melt away. Yet one remains grateful to him, for on a dull day he, almost uniquely, is capable of expressing joy. It is one of the happiest exhibitions seen at the Hayward for a very long time.
The exhibition, sponsored by British Telecom, has a fully illustrated catalogue with essays by Belinda Thomson and Sargy Mann. It runs from 23rd June to 29th August, 1994. From 9th September to 30th October, 1994, it can be seen at the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle.…