Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory
Tate Modern, London
On until 6th May 2019 (£18 admission)
I go to quite a few exhibitions every month (every week even) but I don’t write about all of them. I wait for the “calling”. When I feel that “calling” after an exhibition (same day or several days after) do I write. Pierre Bonnard’s exhibition at the Tate Modern was an odd one. I am not sure if I felt the said “calling” or not. I am still trying to figure that out. But as the saying goes: in case of doubt, do it. So here I am.
I arrived at Bonnard’s exhibition at 10.30am on the Tuesday the week after the exhibition's opening. I wish I’d arrived earlier. Within half an hour most of the 13 rooms of the exhibition felt like Mona Lisa’s room in the Louvre. So I adapted to the circumstances and went room hopping until I found a work that really spoke to me (and some space to actually see it). In room 8 I found an incredible work that really sucked me in. The Bath, 1925. The near morbidity of that painting stood out to me amongst the vibrancy of the colours in most of the surrounding paintings. The contrast of the tones of blue and grey of the body and the water in the bath and the yellow and orange of the upper quarter of the painting - which I first thought were windows but later learnt that they were, apparently, tiles - makes the whole painting really interesting and appealing. I couldn’t help but wonder (God, I sound like Carrie Bradshaw here...) who the woman in the bath was looking at and what she was thinking about. It actually looked more like she was staring into nothingness.
"The exhibition felt like Mona Lisa’s room in the Louvre"
The painting to the right of it attempted to answer my questions. Nude in the Bath, 1925 looks almost like an extension of the previous painting. I could imagine Bonnard having both canvases pinned right next to one another and painting them concurrently. This painting is essentially a view from the (first) bather into what looks like her bedroom. It seems like the bath is located in a bedroom (as opposed to a bathroom). And there is someone walking in the bedroom in close proximity to the bath but we can’t see her face. One could question whether it was a man or a woman but the foot gives it a way. A very feminine foot indeed. The perspective of the painting is rather interesting and sometimes dizzying.
It so happens that Bonnard painted quite a few bathers inspired by his partner Marthe de Méligny's needs for therapeutic baths due to her ailments. The bathing paintings were my favourites. Thinking back, I am quite surprised by it as I would describe myself as someone who loves colour. Yet the bathing paintings are not as rich in contrasting colour as most of the paintings in the exhibition.
The exhibition is set up chronologically starting from 1900 even though the first room makes it a little confusing as there is a selection of works from several phases of the artist's life. Sometimes I wonder whether a thematic approach, where one could clearly see how his use of colour changed over time within a specific theme, would enrich the viewer’s experience. They did do that with two paintings in room 6: The Open French Window, Vernon, c. 1921 and The Door Opening onto the Garden, c. 1924. The works are displayed one next to the other, and given the same subject matter you can clearly see how he favoured the use of stronger and more striking colours in the later painting. I felt that the way he uses orange is something that almost defines that difference in those works.
It's worth mentioning that Bonnard was really interested in photography. In the exhibition there is an interesting example of a painting inspired by a photograph: Nude Crouching in the Tub, 1918. This painting is shown right next to the tiny photograph it was inspired by. I found it delightful to look and relook at the differences and similarities. Curiously, after a while Bonnard no longer needed to carry a camera with him, it's a if he'd built a photographic memory and painted scenes from memory.
In the penultimate room there is a short biographical video of Bonnard and his family and friends. I think in the video you grasp how privileged Pierre Bonnard was. There is something about the way he holds his dog and his foulard around his neck that just screams aristocracy. For a moment I stood there staring at the video on a loop thinking about how the majority of artists of that time came from that kind of healthy financial background. Coincidentally, on my way to the Tate I was listening to a podcast (also available as a You Tube video) about the Brazilian artist Tarsila do Amaral who was a contemporary to Bonnard. The curator, Regina Teixeira de Barros, explained how some of Tarsila's work was inspired by the tales she heard from the ex-slaves (in theory slavery had been abolished then) who worked in her family's estate. It made me reflect on the possibility that the privilege that allowed someone to be back and forth from the Americas to Europe in the early 20th century could also be a hindering factor in the expression of political views. After a trip back from Russia, Tarsila was incarcerated for a month. That experience was enough to appease any ambitions she might have had to express any political concerns through her work (probably a discussion for a separate blog post).
I don’t think that Pierre Bonnard's exhibition will appeal to everybody. I find it hard to love it. There are many works that I really like but the almost 13 rooms of really strong, striking contrasting colours can feel exhausting after a while. As I came out of the exhibition there was a little box for feedback and I pondered for about 2.5 seconds whether I would leave anything (I didn't). That’s when I read (through the transparent box - maybe they should make it opaque...) a feedback that said something like: "I really don’t like the painter but the exhibition was put together ok". It made me think whether this exhibition will be a bit like marmite. But then again I don’t love marmite but I kinda like it from time to time.