Exhibitions: Pierre Bonnard

By Gayford, Martin | The Spectator, January 26, 2019 | Go to article overview

Exhibitions: Pierre Bonnard


Gayford, Martin, The Spectator


An attendant at an art gallery in France once apprehended a little old vandal, or so the story goes. He had smuggled in a palette, paints and brushes under his coat and was trying to alter one of the exhibits -- a picture by Pierre Bonnard. On further questioning, it turned out that the elderly vandal was none other than Bonnard himself. Though the work in question had been 'finished' years before, he just couldn't leave it alone.

Bonnard (1867-1947) was a master of indecision, as a glance at just about any picture in Tate Modern's new exhibition The Colour of Memory reveals. There are no straight lines or clear divisions in his work. Even items you might expect to be sharp --such as window frames -- turn out, on closer inspection, to waver. In Bonnard's world everything is gently woozy. Fittingly, in self-portraits his face is usually in shadow, indistinct and a little blurred, against the light.

Among the unresolved questions that come to mind as you walk around the galleries are 'How good was Bonnard really?' And 'Where does he fit in?' Neither is easy to answer. Patrick Heron, a leading British abstract artist of the mid-20th century, once told me that in his opinion there were four great painters at work in Paris around 1910: Picasso, Matisse, Braque... and Bonnard. No one nowadays would argue about the first two and few would query the third. But Bonnard? His reputation has imperceptibly faded away.

Yet it's not hard to see what Heron saw in him -- and Francis Bacon (the latter once spent an afternoon talking to Giles Auty, erstwhile art critic of this magazine, and the subject was mainly Bonnard). The common factor between the improbable duo of Bacon and Heron was a fascination with brush strokes.

Heron's abstractions often took the form of large, soft oblongs of strong but harmonious colour. In other words, they were like a typical Bonnard such as 'Nude in the Bath' (1936) or 'Coffee' (1915), but with the subjects -- naked woman, spaniel, coffee pot, table cloth -- taken out. But even in a Bonnard, the people and objects often seem to be in a process of dematerialisation. In 'Nude in the Bath', his wife Marthe is a ghostly form beneath the water, while all around the bath tiles and utensils are dissolving into lozenges and spangles of blue and gold.

This gives the clue to where Bonnard came in art historically. He was working on the frontier where representational art was merging into something else. …

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