Photograph of Pierre Bonnard, © Andre Ostier, 1941

Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory (The C C Land exhibition)

in Art/Gallery/Latest

Greys, Paynes, mixed, yellows, cadmium, warm, apple greens, sap greens, watery watery trees. Girls in pale colours, washed out compared to the rich landscape. A brown dog. Earthier than the landscape. Sometimes I think his people are ghosts and the landscape is more alive. This earth is on trust to us. We humans, are shadows compared to nature. There is a frilly texture to his scapes that feels like textiles for women, feels feminine.

When I was younger, I loved his warm yellows, his textured strokes, his soft shapes, his style which I saw as a mix of patternistic and realistic. So beautiful, so inviting. An idyll. For a child, craving rich colours, he painted a utopia. I wanted to live in Bonnard land, inhabit his palette. Like a cartoon is more satisfying than dull old real life, a Bonnard landscape was more seductive. And although the colours were strong, the atmosphere was calm. I wondered if I would feel the same emotions at this grand exhibition.

Of course I did. The colours were amazing. Really amazing. It’s a prosaic word, overused by myself and nearly everyone else, but I meant it when I exclaimed at the paintings. I mean it, looking back at the snapshots I took of the exhibition for reference. This still life on red and white chequered tablecloth is amazing.

Coffee (Le Café) 1915, Oil paint on canvas.  © TATE

As an artist who is addicted to working from memory as well as from real life I was gladdened to learn from the exhibition, which states this very strongly, that Bonnard painted from memory. I am struggling with oil painting right now, a medium I would truly like to do better with, and it is very reassuring to me to realise he painted from memory. He painted colour from memory. And that is very freeing.

I wonder if I would have felt liberated and enfranchised as an artist by seeing a Bonnard exhibition like this when I was young and overwhelmed by the glory of art, but then, would an  exhibition back then have been clever enough to demystify Bonnard’s process by emphasising the process of working from memory been essential for the imaginification of these scenes? Maybe. Maybe I am just looking for this process to be pointed out to me as I am ready for it now. Ready to be educated. Finally, ready for Bonnard.

And it really is a glorious, celebratory show of light and tone. See the outside spill through the windows into the red room, onto the white tablecloth, making it no longer white. Enjoy the pastel interiors with mirrors and reflective mood of his partner Marthe de Méligny, who had to take so many baths for her health. Feel the cool warmth tautologically stretch you into the complex décor, imagine the ripples on your skin. Don’t simply admire this woman, become her. To step into her world is to step out of time into a long afternoon in the French air, clean and soft.

Nude Crouching in the Tub, 1918, Oil paint on canvas, Paris Musée d’Orsay. Photo ©Museé d’Orsay Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/ Patrice Schmidt.

I have always been impressed by Bonnard’s interiors but on this exhibition, I am newly struck by the exteriors. Look, there are living trees, blue and green, white fields, blossom and rendered in soft paint that could still be wetly applied. Not only the domestic spaces look as though they are just left but the exteriors are inhabited by spirits of living people. A woman on a horse is still there, under a tree, over the fence. That Normandy landscape is still present for those who want to look.

But I finish with my gaze on a stronger, friendlier shot for me. Two cats. One on a table in the light, low streaming directly into the room, lighting and modelling the figure who holds a hairbrush. She does not look at us. Her gaze is lowered. And the other cat comes hopefully towards her, to rub itself on her leg, to ask for its milk. Yes, there’s a still life involved with anemones in a vase, but this is a still life inside life, not one specially and intellectually arranged like Cezanne, with his coins under apples to raise them just a little in order to make his micro-constructed fruit architecture. I still want to pass through the varnish, pass into the paint and bathe in the light.

Window open on the Seine (Vernon) 1911-12. Oil paint on canvas. © Ville de Nice Musée des Beaux-Arts Jules Cheret, Photo by Muriel ANNSENS

On the wall nearby are simple pencil sketches that Bonnard did in creating the composition. They are simple tools, simply done, with no great draughtsmanship, no virtuosity. They are mundane and workaday. This very simplicity gives Bonnard its power. Again, the exhibition is demystifying that power. I feel as though I can finally say to that child inside me, the one who clamours to paint, the one that wants to greedily possess this sensual, colourful world, see, that’s how the adults do it. And so can you.

Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory (The C C Land exhibition) is showing at Tate Modern 23 January – 6 May 2019