Immerse yourself in the gloriously colourful world of Pierre Bonnard and bask in the warm sunny afternoons on the Côte d’Azur or gaze out of the window at the lush garden from the coolness of the dining room. Sit with him and his family around the kitchen table spread with a red checkered tablecloth. Some of his works display a seeming lack of structure, as though he had forgotten something and just painted it in as an afterthought, like the top of someone’s head or the glimpse of a nude figure in a mirror or through a doorway. A tall, blond young girl, Renée Monchaty, was the model for The Bowl of Milk, painted in 1919, with the sunshine streaming into the room and the young girl holding a small bowl. Only then does the viewer see the cat at the bottom of the frame, a dark smudge slinking across the floor. Young Women in the Garden has his lover Renée in the shade, centre canvas turning to face the viewer, with an almost unnoticed face insinuating itself at the extreme right of the composition. This is Marthe de Méligny, who was about to supplant Renée as his mistress and become his companion, model and wife for the next fifty years. Three weeks after Bonnard switched allegiances and married Marthe in 1925 after thirty years of living together, Renée killed herself. He started the painting of them both in 1921, fiddled with it until 1925, then it was abandoned until 1945 and finally finished the following year, three years after Marthe died. He rarely painted from life, relying mainly on drawings, notes and photographs, to paint on to unstretched canvases pinned to the walls, but mostly from his memory. He would take copious notes and do numerous pencil drawings on his morning walks, before returning to his modest studio in the house.
Bonnard never took on anything that might be considered challenging, unlike his contemporaries, Picasso and Matisse. His subjects were steeped in domesticity, of everyday life, food and wine on the table, a bowl of fruit, a view through an open window to a verdant landscape and, of course, his nudes, which he depicted over 380 times, many of them in the bath. Luckily, his wife had an almost pathological fondness for bathing, possibly as a cure for a skin ailment or the tubercular laryngitis that she suffered from, and would lie in an enamelled bath for ages, while Bonnard etched the tranquil scene in his memory, or, afterwards, when she was towelling herself down. Although there is an inherent voyeurism in these canvases, Marthe would have been compliant and would willingly pose for him, standing against the light in her bedroom, or lying provocatively on a bed. In Earthly Paradise, started in 1916, Bonnard is standing bolt upright, naked under a tree, but preferring to gaze out on the lush landscape and not at the enticing figure of Monchaty, possibly as Eve, sprawling on the ground in a state of complete abandon. Curiously, although he never painted en plein air, there is a fold-up easel behind the tree he is leaning on. Some of his nudes are sublime in their lighting and composition, like Nude Against the Light from 1908, a gloriously executed painting, singing with colour and light, which brings to mind Ken Howard’s contre-jour pictures a century on, while others, like Nude Against the Light (again), painted a decade later, are awkward and lumpish. Marthe’s round, spoon-like face pops up in Dining Room in the Country, (1913), The Window from 1925, almost as an afterthought on a balcony, and, of course, in the many depictions of her à toilette. She was, by all accounts, petite, timid and misanthropic, understandably, and not at all popular amongst his friends.
Matisse and Monet had enormous respect for Bonnard, although Picasso was less than generous with his praise, stating that he was ‘not really a modern painter. a decadent, at the end of of an old idea. . . . That’s not painting. Painting can’t be done that way. Painting isn’t a question of sensibility.’ Matisse countered by saying, ‘Yes! I certify that Pierre Bonnard is a great painter, for today and for the future.’ Bonnard was a private man, self-sufficient, partly reclusive and apparently straight. Photographs of him could be mistaken for a bank-clerk or a solicitor on holiday, with a thick, worsted suit, owlish glasses and tie. This appearance was deceptive, as, approaching fifty, he entered into another clandestine relationship with the beautiful wife of the Bonnards’ family doctor, Lucienne Dupuy de Frenelle, who also acted as his model. He used photography, not just for reference of Marthe posing nude in the garden, or on a bed, but also of his mother and the children of his sister Andrée and brother-in-law, Claude Terrasse, playing in a pond.
As well as his and Marthe’s, there are other portraits by Cartier-Bresson, Besson and Brassai in the exhibition, including a couple by André Ostier of the painter in his studio.This is the first major exhibition of his work in twenty years, and includes over 100 of his greatest works from around the world. Five paintings, including The Bath and The Dining Room have been divested of their frames and hang unframed to create a sense of how they might have looked in his studio. The effect this has is to highlight how dreadful some of the other frames are, and how they diminish a picture. If the month of February is proving too grey and depressing, then step into a pool of sunshine at Bankside.
Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory
Until 6 May 2019