Thursday, 22 August 2019

Bonnard at the Tate

The first exhibition of paintings that I remember enjoying was of paintings by Pierre Bonnard. It was held in one of Canberra's few faintly lovely buildings, the Albert Hall, and although I am inclined to get stuck back in the fourteenth and fifteenth century when looking at paintings, Bonnard won my heart back then. My affection for Bonnard was further cemented by the fact that years later, while working as a translator in an Italian press office, I won over a terrifying boss by mentioning how I'd loved that long ago Canberra exhibition: it turned out that it had been her husband who had organised the entire thing and she was thrilled that anyone still remembered it.

Given this personal Bonnard history, when I saw that a huge Bonnard exhibition was being held at the Tate Modern in London earlier this year, I got very excited and even dragged along some reluctant family members, who later said that they were glad that I had persuaded them to come along.

I found this exhibition one of the most enjoyable I've seen in a while. I hope with this post I can share the pleasure around. While I don't know enough to have anything interesting to say about the paintings that were on display, beyond the fact that I like them, because I do like them, I am sharing here the pictures that I took. Thus, if anyone was unlucky enough to have missed the exhibition, they can scroll through this and get at least a faint idea of what it was like. Where possible I've included the Tate's captions, although sometimes I somehow managed to take a blurred picture of the caption.

Regarding the captions, one thing I noticed was that they quite often drew your attention helpfully to the presence of a figure, whether human or in one case in donkey form, that you might otherwise have missed in the picture. Going through all the pictures, I can also see how they could be grouped in different ways - scenes with checked tablecloths, scenes with tables and bowls of fruit, garden scenes, very often glimpsed through a doorway or window, scenes dominated by yellow or by red or, somehow surprisingly, once one has lodged in one's mind the idea that Bonnard is an artist of warm colours, bluish grey, scenes in bathrooms, self-portraits and so on and so forth.
Pont de la Concorde, 1913-15, oil on canvas, presented to the Tate by the Earl of Sandwich in 1944

View from Uhlenhorst Ferry House on the Outer Alster Lake with St. Johannis, 1913, oil on canvas, (Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh)

Here Bonnard captures one of his favourite subjects: a bustling crowd. The foreground figures are positioned so that we can see through them to the regatta in the harbour. This contributes to the sense of immediacy captured in the energetic brushwork. Bonnard travelled to Hamburg with his friend the painter Édouard Vuillard and other artists at the invitation of Alfred Lichtwark, the Director of the Kusthalle, the city's museum. Bonnard's painting shows his response to new sights and experiences as he travelled.
Young Women in the Garden  1921-3/1945-6, oil on canvas, private collection

An unusual high view point, Bonnard developed inventive compositions to portray familiar surroundings, reminiscent of a snap-shot, allows the seated and standing figures to be held within the same frame. The woman in profile at the right has been identified as Bonnard's companion Marthe de Méligny. The central figure is Renée Monchaty, with whom he had an affair. Bonnard began the painting in the 1920s, then set it aside for more than twenty years. The long interruption may be linked to Bonnard's complex relationship with these two women. Returning to the canvas after the deaths of both de Méligny and Monchaty, he recaptured their presence.

Town in the South of France, (Saint-Tropez), 1914, oil on canvas, private collection

Lane at Vernonnet, 1912-1914, oil on canvas, National Galleries of Scotland

Open Window Towards the Seine (Vernon) ), c. 1911, Oil on canvas, Musée des Beaux-Arts Ville de Nice

Still Life, with figure, (Marthe Bonnard), 1912, Oil on canvas, Kunstiftung Pauline, (private collection)

The Mantlepiece, 1916, oil on canvas, Kunststiftung Pauline, (Private collection)
In The Mantlepiece Bonnard creates a complex visual structure. A stretching woman is reflected in the mirror, with a painted nude on the wall behind her. She stands where the painter should be, but he does not appear in the reflection. Bonnard evidently considered this to be an important work and chose to show it at two prestigious international exhibitions - the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh in 1924 and the Venice Biennale, in 1926.

Dining Room in the Country, 1913, Oil on canvas, lent by the Minneapolis Institute of Art

Bonnard's innovative exploration of colour really took off around 1912-1913. Here the crisp light of the garden contrasts with the responding glow of the interior. Each has a linking element, as light pours in through the doorway while the woman's red blouse extends the interior colouring out into the garden. This was one of the first paintings to show Bonnard's response to the landscape around his house in Normandy.

Coffee, 1915, Oil on canvas, Tate

Mirror above a Washstand, 1908, Oil on canvas

In the early years of the 20th century, Bonnard repeatedly painted scenes of women washing and dressing. While many painters at the time portrayed nudes in contrived positions, Bonnard tended to show more natural poses These may reflect his interest in photography and its ability to capture a casual moment. Here he depicts a dressing table with a mirror that reflects a standing nude and a seated woman beside a chest of drawers. The reflection opens the question of where Bonnard imagined himself, and therefore the viewer, to be placed within the space.

The Checkered Tablecloth, 1916, Oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Caption missing, apologies

The Fourteenth of July, 1918, Oil on canvas, private collection
Detail of above

Bonnard was fascinated by the behaviour of crowds in the street. Made during the First World War, the work shows the celebration of France's national day. The night-time setting makes the scene more intense, as the crowd throngs with soldiers and their partners in front of a bandstand. For many years this painting was know as Armistice and associated with the end of the war. Although the identification has changed, it remains an image of patriotic celebration, captured through urgent brushwork. 

Donkey in the Garden, Le Grand-Lemps, c 1917, oil on canvas, collection of Adrian Sassoon

Detail of above

The family home at Le Grand-Lemps in the Dauphiné in south-east France was a haven for Bonnard. He revisited it each summer to paint and to share family holidays. This work was made during the war. Bonnard painted the tranquil scene aware of the destruction and violence taking place a few hundred miles away.

A Village in Ruins near Ham, 1917, oil on canvas, Centre national des arts plastiques, Paris

This wartime painting vividly reveals how Bonnard responded to contemporary events. It depicts the ruins of a village on the river Somme, the scene of an extended battle during 1916. The destruction makes the location unrecognisable. Between a seated, despairing figure on the left and a cluster of French troops to the right, a Red Cross vehicle can be made out. The watery technique here reflects the desolation that Bonnard experienced on visiting the war zone in May 1917. The painting, along with works by other artists who toured the area, was immediately acquired by the French state.

Preparatory sketchs for 'The Bowl of Milk' c. 1919, graphite on paper

The Bowl of Milk, c 1919, oil on canvas

In late 1918 Bonnard and de Méligny rented a ground-floor room facing a small cove on the Cap d'Antibes in the south of France. Light reflected from the sea pours through the balcony window. Bonnard fixes this powerful effect, so that the strong light leaves many details in shadow, including the face of the woman and the cat awaiting its milk. Associated drawings show how he tested a variety of details and poses before bringing them together in the final composition.

Nude Crouching in the Tub, 1918, Oil on canvas 
This is one of the few paintings that relate to a specific photograph. The differences - apart from the use of colour - are instructive. They show how Bonnard learned from the relaxed poses in his photographs, while giving the figure and her surroundings a more solid presence within the composition of a painting. He absorbed the photographic approach to such an extent that by the early 1920s he no longer needed to carry a camera. He could fix snap-shots in his memory alone

Balcony at Vernonnet, c. 1920, oil on canvas
House among the Trees, 1918, oil on canvas

Add caption
The Open French Window, Vernon, c.1921, oil on canvas, private collection, courtesy of Wildenstein and Co. Inc., New York
The Door Opening onto the Garden, c. 1924, oil on canvas, private collection courtesy of Jill Newhouse Gallery, New York
Made three years apart, these two paintings of the door and window at Vernonnet show how Bonnard worked through colour variations on a repeated theme, suggesting different seasons and different moods. Waking from memory, he emphasised the details that first inspired him: a glimpse of the river perhaps, or light reflected in the door.

Woman at a Table, 1923, oil on canvas, private collection

In Woman at a Table Bonnard uses the small format to focus in on his companion. The viewpoint suggests that we are sharing the meal with the pensive woman, who is so close that her head is cropped by the top of the picture. Her boldly striped dress may have been the artist's original inspiration. He considered the work enough of a success to have it reproduced in the periodical Verve fifteen years later.

View of the River, Vernon, 1923, oil on canvas, National Galleries of Scotland

Basket of Bananas, 1925, oil on canvas

The Violet Fence, 1923, oil on canvas, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

Stretching across the width of the canvas, the fence divides off the foreground in this painting and contrasts with the exuberant greenery beyond. Bonnard was starting to use strong horizontal bands as a compositional device. During 1923 he was primarily working in Le Cannet, near Cannes in the south of France. At one state he and de Méligny stayed in the evocatively named villa Le Rêve. They bought a house in the town soon afterwards.

The White Tablecloth, 1925, oil on canvas, Von der Heydt Museum, Wuppertal, Germany
Detail of The White Tablecloth

The Bath, oil on canvas, presented by Lord Ivor Spencer Churchill, 1930, to the Tate

The reclining female nude is a recurrent subject in European art. Bonnard's images of de Méligny's therapeutic bathing introduce a new element, showing how different the body looks under water. This is the first, and simplest, of four paintings addressing this theme that he made over the following twenty years. Here de Méligny stretches across the width of the canvas, so that the composition can be divided into a series of horizontal bands: the tiled wall, the white of the bath, the immersed body, the rim and the floor. 

This is one of a series of paintings that Bonnard made of his wife Martha in the bath. Though she was in her mid-fifties, the artist depicts her as a young woman Marthe spent many hours in the bathroom: she may have had tuberculosis, for which water therapy was a popular treatment, or she may have had an obsessive neurosis The bath, cut off at both ends, and the structure of the wall create a rigorously geometric composition. The effect is strangely lifeless, and almost tomb-like; as if the painting were a silent expression of sorrow for Marthe's plight. 

Terrace in the South of France, c.1925, oil on canvas, Fonds Glénat, Grenoble, France

Landscape; Young Girl with a Goat, c.1925, oil on canvas, private collection c/o Pissaro and Associates Fine Art
The Table, 1925, oil on canvas, Tate, presented by the Courtauld, 1926

The Dining Room, Vernon, c.1925, oil on canvas, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen

This work belongs to the series of paintings showing the related interior and exterior spaces in Bonnard's house at Vernonnet. As well as filling the canvas with colour, he included two figures, while a reflection in the door may indicate the presence of a third. De Méligny is shown bending towards the dog whose expectant nose peeks just above the edge of the table. The two figures wear clothes that bring together all the colours ranged across the painting. This was an ambitious undertaking and Bonnard controlled the structure through the rhythm of verticals created by the door and window frames.

The Window, 1925, oil on canvas, presented to the Tate by Lord Ivor Spencer Churchill, through the Contemporary Art Society, 1930

Nude in the Bath, 1925, oil on canvas, Tate, bequeathed by Simon Sainsbury, 2006
Flowers on a Mantlepiece in Le Cannet, 1927, oil on canvas, Musée des Beaux-arts, Lyon
Corner of the Dining Room at Le Cannet, the rest of the caption is too blurred
Still Life with Bouquet of Flowers or Venus of Cyrene, 1930, oil on canvas, Kunstmuseum Basel
Landscape at Le Cannet, 1928, oil on canvas, Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas
This painting depicts the view from the hill above Bonnard's home. The roof of his house, Le Bosquet, sits at the centre of the canvas, surrounded by trees. The peaks of the Estérel mountains are visible across the bay. A male figure reclines in the foreground, perhaps representing Bonnard himself. Despite his prominent position on the canvas, the use of green and yellow tones means that the figure blends into the landscape.

Nude in the Mirror, 1931, oil on canvas, Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia, Galleria Internazionale d'Arte Moderna di Ca'Pesaro

Nude at her Bath, 1931, Oil on canvas, Centre Pompidou, Paris

A female figure rests on the edge of the bathtub in a moment of distraction. Her face is turned away from the viewer. The pile of clothes on the chair create an abstract pattern. The sense of abstraction is heightened by the tiled design of the floor and the unidentifiable white form that enters the frame from the right hand side of the canvas.

The Boxer, 1931, oil on canvas, Musée d'Orsay, Paris
In this self-portrait, the artist is confronted by hi own reflection in the mirror. He is presented without brush, palette or canvas, which indicates that this moment has been reconstructed rather than recorded His fists are raised, with a dark shadow cast across his face. His stance suggests anxiety or struggle, which challenges the popular conception of Bonnard as a painter of 'happiness'. The viewer is left to question who or what the artist is struggling with.

Self portrait, c.1938, oil on canvas

Self portrait, 1945, oil on canvas, Foundation Bemberg Toulouse, France
Nude in the Bath, 1936, oil on canvas, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris
Bonnard shifted and adapted his compositions to enrich the emotional and psychological content of his work. This painting depicts de Méligny outstretched in the bath. The measured application of colour in earlier paintings on this theme has given way to a more intense and expressive use of colour.

Nude in an Interior, c.1935, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington

We face a patterned wall, upon which a full-length mirror is hung. An adjoining room is reflected in the mirror, allowing us to see the contour of a female body along the mirror's edge. The composition is formed from a series of interlocking rectangles. This interplay of horizontal and vertical lines suggests Bonnard's increased engagement with abstraction.

The Pudding, c. 1940, oil on canvas, Foundation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, Beyeler Collection

A Basket and a Plate of Fruit on a Checkered Tablecloth, 1939, oil on canvas, the Art Institute of Chicago

Large Dining Room Overlooking the Garden, 1934-5, oil on canvas, Guggenheim  Museum, New York
This painting shows a domestic scene at Le Bosquet. Bonnard uses intense, concentrated colours - ultramarine and yellow, purple and orange - to suggest different layers of reality. Memory played a crucial role in the construction of the work, which was painted over the course of a year. Many details, including the figure on the right-hand side of the canvas, seem to have an almost ghostly presence.

The Garden, c. 1936, oil on canvas
This painting depicts the artist's garden at Le Bosquet. Bonnard's technique of constructing through memory gave him the flexibility to experiment with both perspective and colour. He creates an explosion of coloured foliage and vegetation. The effect is immersive, placing us as viewers in the garden and inviting our eyes to wander, taking in our surroundings.

Grey Nude in Profile, c. 1938

In the Bathroom, c.1940, oil on canvas, private collection
Blurred caption, apologies
Another blurred caption, involving le Cannet

The Bath, 1942, gouache, pastel and crayon on paper, Art Cuellar-Nathan, Zurich

The Studio with Mimosa, 1939-46, oil on canvas, Centre Pompidou, Paris

Panoramic View of Le Cannet, 1941, oil on canvas, private collection, Courtesy of Wildenstein and Co. Inc. New York
Still Life with Bottle of Red Win, 1942, oil on canvas, Pilar Crespi Robert and Stephen Robert Collection
Still Life with Bottle of Red Wine is one of a number of still-lives that Bonnard painted at Le Cannet in the last years of his life. It confirms the continual inventiveness of his vision, even of the most everyday subject matter. Bonnard's rich palette of red and yellow creates a sense of abundance - in contrast, perhaps, to the significant food shortages that he would have experienced during the war.

Steps in the Artist's Garden, 1942-4, Oil on canvas
Bonnard worked on this painting over two years marked by loss and suffering. Marthe de Méligny died in January, 1942, leaving the artists without his life-long companion. In 1944, Allied forces invaded southern France, bringing the Second World War closer to Bonnard's home. During this troubled period, he found solace in his daily encounter with his[?] nature.

Peaches and Grapes, on a Red Tablecloth, c. 1943, oil on canvas

Bathers at the End of the Day, 1945, oil on canvas, Musée Bonnard, Le Cannet

In this painting Bonnard's depiction of nature dissolves into juxtapositions of colour. Land, sea, and sky become slabs of blue, green, red and white. The swimming figures emerge from the sea in bright hues of red and yellow. Immersed in colour, Bonnard's vision transcends the real world

The Steep Path in Le Cannet, 1945, oil on canvas

Almond Tree in Blossom, 1947, oil on canvas, Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Bonnard could see the almond tree in the garden at Le Bosquet from his bedroom window. 'Every spring it forces me to paint it', he said. This was his final painting. When he was too weak to paint, he asked his nephew, Charles Terrasse to alter the colouring of a patch of ground from green to yellow. Bonnard passed away in January 1947.