Upon waking from dreams, we attempt to shake off the fleeting images our subconscious minds have constructed from fragments of memory and imagination. Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947) spent his life putting those fragments on canvas with luminous colors that displayed the dreamlike rooms of his memory.
An exciting exhibition of the artist’s works is slated to fill the walls of London’s Tate Modern from January 23 through May 6, 2019. This show prompts viewers to savor the paintings, without hurrying, and to allow the eye to take in the voluptuous scenes. Bonnard challenges museumgoers to visit his rooms and to become guests stopping by for afternoon coffee, or pensive friends peering at landscapes through his open windows and doors. “I’m trying to do what I have never done—give the impression one has on entering a room: one sees everything and at the same time nothing,” the artist wrote.
Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory, the first major UK exhibition of the artist’s work since 1998, features one hundred pieces from museums and private collections around the world, including paintings, book illustrations, drawings, and photographs Bonnard made between the years 1912 and 1947. Helen O’Malley, Assistant Curator at the Tate Modern, says, “The year 1912 marked a radical shift in Bonnard’s practice. He began to reassess his use of color, placing an increased emphasis on intensity of tone.” This wide-ranging show traces the development of Bonnard’s style and defines him as a painter who influenced modern abstract artists such as Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell. Pierre Bonnard was born in Fontenay-aux-Roses, near Paris, on October 3, 1867, and was encouraged by hisfather to study law at the Sorbonne. Though the young Bonnard finished law school and worked for a short time as an avocat, he also attended the École des Beaux-Arts and Académie Julian, where he met Édouard Vuillard, Maurice Denis, and other young artists who formed a group known as Les Nabis (The Prophets). While associated with Les Nabis, Bonnard was influenced by the colorful, decorative work of Paul Gauguin and by Japanese prints that favored the arrangement of brightly colored geometrical shapes, instead of three-dimensional forms, and flattened spaces. Bonnard worked simultaneously on unstretched canvases that he hung on his studio’s walls, and he relied on notetaking, sketching, and memory to transcend objective reality. “I have all my subjects at hand.” he said. “And before I start painting I reflect, I dream.”
Bonnard’s interior scenes, often starring his ageless wife, Marthe, are among his most well-known works. In paintings like Dining Room in the Country (1913) and Coffee (1915), “Bonnard’s experimental use of color suggests a break with reality,” O’Malley says. “He creates a memory space between what he is looking at and thinking about.” Also, Bonnard invented compositional techniques that shifted people and objects away from the center of the frame. A woman’s head, for example, has been entirely cropped out of frame in Coffee, and in Dining Room in the Country, only the leaning upper half of a female figure appears; the woman is looking not at the lush landscape behind her, but rather into an unpopulated room. This deliberateness asks modern viewers to ponder the psychological underpinnings and wit of such gestures.
Conversely, A Village in Ruins Near Ham (1917), was inspired by the artist’s official travels to the Western Front. “The painting,” O’Malley says, “emphasizes the destruction Bonnard witnessed, with the small town of Ham rendered almost unrecognizable, absorbing the earthy color of the battlefield. Visitors to the exhibition will be offered a unique opportunity to see Bonnard’s little-known response to life during the First World War. It shows him as an artist acutely aware of the world around him.”
Pierre Bonnard’s contributions to the development of modern art have not been fully appreciated, and the Tate Modern’s exhibition gives this revelatory artist his due. Bonnard dared throughout his lifetime to push toward modernity by working from memory, by experimenting with color and ways of seeing, and also by refusing to imitate styles of painting like Cubism, which he said “left him hanging in air.” Bonnard’s work resists categorization, and his influence remains. In 1946, the year before his death, the artist noted, “I hope that my painting will endure without cracking. I should like to present myself to the young painters of the year 2000 with the wings of a butterfly.”
WRITTEN BY CHERYL WHITEHEAD
This story appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of MILIEU.