|Pierre Bonnard: The Garden 1936 Museé d'Art moderne de la Ville de Paris|
Pierre Bonnard (1867 – 1947) was described by critics in his native France as a ‘painter of happiness’. In the 1930s, a time of economic slump and political extremism, his works were more popular that those of Picasso and Matisse. And visiting this exhibition on a cold, grey winter day, you can understand why. The glorious colours of his landscapes and domestic interiors give an immediate boost to the spirit.
|Pierre Bonnard 1941 by Andre Ostier National Gallery of Australia, ©Andre Ostier Estate|
Born into a comfortably-off middle class family, the early phase of his artistic career was with a Paris group of young rebels, the Nabis (Prophets), whose bold, simplified style was inspired by Gauguin. His decorative and fashionable work brought success. But gradually, he developed a painting style that was emphatically his own. Around 1912, in his mid-forties, he began to explore the possibilities of colour in a very individual way, perhaps influenced by the vivid colours used by the Fauves (Wild Animals) - painters such as Matisse and Derain. In Dining Room in the Country (below) light pours through the doorway while the woman’s red top extends the interior colouring out into the garden.
|Pierre Bonnard: Dining Room in the Country 1913. Minneapolis Institute of Art|
Unlike the earlier Impressionists, he preferred to work indoors, from memory, seeking to capture the spirit of the moment, and then working and reworking the result to rediscover the original experience and bring it into the present without losing its place in the past. The exhibition focuses on his mature work, displaying some 100 paintings, suffused with colour and often with unconventional angles (below).
|Pierre Bonnard: Coffee, 1915. Tate|
In 1911 he bought his first car, and with his lover, model and later wife, Marthe de Méligny, explored the countryside around Paris and visited southern France, where he revelled in the intense light. In 1916 they bought a house in the village of Le Cannet, just outside Cannes, and divided their time between winters there, and summers in their house in Normandy. His paintings express moments lost in time – the view from a window, an empty room at the end of a meal, a path through the garden. Marthe also features in many of his works. She suffered from various illnesses throughout her life, treating these with what was then called hydrotherapy, and is most frequently portrayed in a bath.
|Pierre Bonnard: Nude in the Bath 1936. Museé d'Art moderne de la Ville de Paris|
Although Bonnard didn’t fight in World War I, in 1917 he captured the legacy of the terrible struggle along the Somme in A Village in Ruins (below). Between a despairing seated figure on the right and French troops on the left, you can see a Red Cross vehicle.
|Pierre Bonnard: A Village in Ruins near Ham. Centre national des arts plastiques, Paris|
Hanging beside it is another painting, done around the same time. In Summer (below) he imagines a lush landscape of safety and ease, perhaps offering a vision of the peace that all hoped was to come.
|Pierre Bonnard: Summer 1917. Fondation Marguerite et Aimé Maeght, Saint-Paul-France|
Bonnard would work on several paintings at a time, the canvases just pinned to his walls so they could be rolled up and easily transported as he travelled around. One room of the exhibition seeks to replicate this (below). The five paintings removed from their frames give a clear idea of his working methods - you can see how he painted very close to the edge of the canvas, sometimes putting in a line around the edge to show where the frame would be.
With World War II looming, he and Marthe sold the house in Normandy and retreated to Le Cannet. It was a time when restrictions were placed on movement, and shortages had artists borrowing paints and other materials from each other. Marthe died of a heart attack in 1942. “You can’t imagine my grief,” Bonnard told his friend Matisse. His world shrank, forcing him to explore the local area more closely. His approach became more abstract, enriching colour while reducing details in his paintings.
|Pierre Bonnard, The Studio with Mimosas, 1939-46, Musee National d'art Moderne - Centre Pompidou, Paris|
One of the most powerful works from this final period is The Studio with Mimosa. In a characteristic interplay between interior and exterior, the brilliant yellows of mimosa blossom can be seen through the studio window.
It’s 20 years since the last Bonnard exhibition in London, so it’s fitting that this event opens with Young Women in the Garden, from 1921 - 23. Typically, he then put it aside and what we see is his final version, completed just over 20 years later.
The CC Land Exhibition Pierre Bonnard, Tate Modern, to May 6, 2019. £18 (concessions available).