The recent Pierre Bonnard show at Tate Modern (it finishes on May 6), was in many respects an overwhelming experience. Bonnard’s work is colourful and dense with brush marks and the best pieces are fairly large. I’ve seen his work in British museums and galleries, but never the large pieces on which his reputation really rests.
Ahead of the Study Event I circulated a couple of texts to the participants to give them something to think about ahead of seeing the work first hand. One of these texts was Waldemar Januszczak’s guarded review from the Sunday Times. He begins his review as follows:
Picasso was not an admirer of Pierre Bonnard. Indeed, he loathed Bonnard’s paintings and dismissed them as “a potpourri of indecision”. This cheers me up, because it provides some serious artistic backing to the doubts that assail me whenever I see a lot of Bonnards. I go in with an open mind. I come out with blurry eyes. Too many marks. Too many colours. Too little sense of direction. (Januszczcak, 2019)
Even before we met up on the Saturday I received an email from a student who had seen the show and was annoyed by this opinion.
It was, however a show of high and lows. To get the lows out of the way: his drawing isn’t always very good. He is a painter, first and foremost, and could be criticised for dazzling with colour rather than toughening up his underlying drawing. The exhibition contained too many ‘also-rans’; small works that added nothing much to the show’s consistency.
The highs are well known: His use of colour is dealt with below. His skill as a composer of shapes on a flat plane is, I think, beyond reproach in his best work. The way he creates a tension between the flatness of the canvas and the implied depth in a room an be breathtaking. There is distortion in the way floors – which are often tiled, making it clear that something is up – are represented. This apparent distortion is a red herring, I think. Look at David Hockney’s ‘joiners’ and you see the same bending of space. Bonnard puts the viewer in the room, not looking at it through an imagined proscenium arch. Bonnard, as much as any painter, reaches back to a representation of space that existed before Brunelleschi codified linear perspective.
This shifting positioning of the viewer (or rather of the himself) in relation to his subject is picked up by Sarah (a Drawing Two student) in her blogpost about the visit:
Dining Room in the Country. A large oil painting dated 1913 contains some really odd elements including two impossibly tiny cats. The figure glimpsed through the doorway appears to blend into the green and blues of the garden. There also appears to be many viewpoints in the room and I couldn’t work out where Bonnard would have been. I wondered whether he had worked on the piece from several different viewpoints. Yet despite all this the piece is beautiful – so do all the inconsistencies actually matter? Aesthetically it probably doesn’t, as the piece is compelling.
Sarah-Jane – a photographer – writes about the relationship that Bonnard has with photography, while taking on Januszczak’s review:
I can see what Januszczak means but I think he misses the point about why Bonnard’s work stands out and does deserve to be in an exhibition now, especially at a time when we are reconfiguring our relationship with photography and much more besides – and what that means for humans and how we see, and are evolving.
Kym wrote after visiting the show:
It’s not about either loving or hating Bonnard, it’s not about having to put on the sunglasses – Bonnard does not blind, Bonnard teaches. Bonnard was not blind, he saw clearly than most of us see, especially certain art critics.
That willingness to be taught by another artist is crucial. So much of what Bonnard has already done can have a beneficial impact on us. Recognising that we are not required to reinvent the wheel is such an important step for anyone aspiring to make anything new. It is by absorbing influences and working through them we bet to pastures new.
A word on the colour. Bonnard’s use of colour is, I think, remarkable. Lilacs become orange and green is veiled over red. Dabs of complimentary colour can almost overwhelm the general field they are are complimenting. It can be hard to get past this as Januszczak implies. The paintings have complex surfaces. There isn’t lots of detail in terms of representation, but the texture and rhythm of the marks inscribes the flatness of the canvas (Bonnard like many others of his generation was influenced by Japanese Art, and, in turn, Gauguin and Degas).
Seeing work first-hand is important and I’m pleased that despite the problems the work presents – or perhaps because of them – the exhibition has simulated reflection on how they paintings relate to the world, affect the viewer (especially ones directly engaged with picture-making), and when seen en masse induce a kind of reverie, especially in relation to colour.
*I’m being a little unfair. I liked some of the small strange paintings, especially one of swimmers called Bathers at the End of the Day. The figures are hot orange, yellow, and white while the sea is blue and green with the sky a sunset of lilac and orange. The thin strip of beach in the foreground is mostly yellow. The figures look as if collaged from some heat-mapped photograph. It’s a disconcerting image, unresolved and speculative, but that’s its power, I think. Bonnard produced many such works.
Links to quoted material:
Image credit: OCA tutor Bryan Eccleshall.