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Study event review: Pierre Bonnard

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.

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Posted by author: Bryan

13 thoughts on “Study event review: Pierre Bonnard

  • It is an interesting exhibition and worth a visit. Last week I went to see Munch love and Angst at the British museum which is concerned with exploring Munch’s Prints and there was this interesting quote from Munch “we shall no longer paint interiors , people reading , and women knitting , they will be people who are alive , who breath and feel, suffer and love – 1889” a real contrast to Bonnard!

  • I’m going to throw my hat in with Januszczak on this one. I was not fortunate enough to attend the study trip, but I saw the Bonnard show last week and I think that the comment about “too many ‘also-rans’” is telling. I’d go further – there was too much full stop. The ‘never mind the quality, feel the width’ approach to ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions seems to be in the ascendant. What this approach does for Bonnard, as well as overwhelm the visitor, is to highlight his inconsistences and inadequacies (primarily draftsmanship plus frequent over-reliance on coloured sauce). In isolation, there is merit to some paintings; at the Tate it needs some effort to block out the surrounding cacophony.
    “Seeing work first-hand is important”, I agree however with Bonnard I find myself often disappointed when face to face with an original that I have studied in reproduction. Perhaps the process of printing etc reduces the variables and tightens the image (not just in dimension terms). I’ve considered ‘The Table’ (1925) an intriguing composition (issues of scale, perspective and artist’s viewpoint) but when faced with the original one can only conclude that John Bratby did a better job of a similar subject.
    I did, however, find a pleasing balance in ‘The Open Window, Yellow Wall’ (c1919) – perhaps this was due to human absence?

  • Thank you so much, Bryan – you wrote re the tension Bonnard creates between the flatness if t
    he canvass and implied depth in a room … And the tile-distortion …something is up… Oh yes, I could see and that’s why I was making those drawings of how he clearly felt so comfortable in the space that he knew how to ‘colour’ it – and THAT is what I I want to learn how to do .

  • The last Bonnard exhibition at Tate Britain in 1998 was an unqualified success and a memorable show, so why the mixed reactions to this one at Tate Modern?
    Given that it is possible that not every painting a well know artist does is a masterpiece, then the answer must come down to the curator’s choice of available pictures, how those pictures are hung and the quality of the galleries and lighting applied. I have always thought that the galleries at Tate Modern are dismal and not suitable for small pictures whereas the galleries at Tate Britain are top lit with natural light and are much more sympathetic.

    • Isn’t the whole thing re the exhibition that it collided: expectations of Bonnard .to situate his work ‘academie-wise: with desire to actually ‘see’ Bonnard (en-dehors academie)? To simply ‘see’ Bonnard?
      I thought the curation was clever for that .

    • I agree re the lighting at Tate Modern – often inadequate, prone to create shadow (especially when looking into vitrines) and “dismal”. The curator’s did a better job with the Modigliani show earlier this year (using the same rooms I think) but there were still issues with light levels.
      The Stedelijk in Amsterdam has some similar internal spaces but somehow the lighting is less obtrusive and more effective. “curator’s choice of available pictures, how those pictures are hung and the quality of the galleries and lighting applied” – exactly.

  • Please don’t allow Picasso’s opinion about Pierre Bonnard to influence you. From what I know about Picasso, he believed in promoting himself exclusively and enlarging his own grandiose stature as an artist!
    I am more inclined to trust the opinion of Henri Matisse, when he wrote: “Yes! I certify that Pierre Bonnard is a great painter” in angry response after reading an article titled “Is Pierre Bonnard a great painter?” in the Cahiers d’art.
    Back to Bryan’s words: “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.” I disagree.
    I am reminded of my own experience 6 years in Drawing 1, when my tutor at that stage (who shall remain nameless) exhorted me to “try not to scribble”. In my book, individual drawing style is like one’s voice, it’s unique, personal and conveys so much about the practitioner. My drawing at that stage was being informed and inspired by Bonnard’s quick, natural and lively little sketches in his tiny diary that he carried with him on his daily walks. I really appreciate the speed, casual spontaneity of these little drawings. They were never meant to be virtuoso masterpieces, describing a scene, but simply an aide memoire for reference purposes; they provide a loose framework for his memory. Similarly, his paintings don’t depend on draughtsmanship, they are emphatically built on colour and convey the artist’s memory of his experience; the remembered feeling of of a place or a scene. Bonnard’s use of in-focus and out-of-focus areas in his paintings, to me strongly evokes that sense of how patchily we remember (or don’t remember) the details of our experiences. In my opinion having more defined drawn or painted forms would work against that intentional and very desirable effect. I personally get great pleasure out of the ah-ha moment when my eye slows down and recognises a form emerging shyly out of the background or an element that has been abstracted by cropping. He was the first painter I know of, who used clever cropping to draw the observer into the painting.
    To Bonnard, painting was “the transcription of the adventures of the optic nerve”. His work is visually complex, subtle and playful, requiring active rather than lazy viewing. If allowed, that is, fully engaged with by the viewer, his work stimulates the eye, the brain, memory and emotion. What more could one ask for?

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