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(The Colour of Memory: the CC LAND Exhibition at Tate Modern 23 January 2019 – 6 May 2019)

1941. A photograph of the 74-year-old Pierre Bonnard – in his bucket hat with a dachshund on his lap – looking like Hirohito. Enigmatic, unassuming, under wraps, in mufti. The Emperor disguised in a freshly pressed, thick woollen suit. The Emperor’s new clothes.

In 1947, Christian Zervos, reviewing his posthumous retrospective, deposed Bonnard as the last scion of the Impressionists, as a pretender from the Nineteenth Century. Bonnard the modernist impostor. Matisse was outraged and protested that Bonnard was ‘one of the greatest painters’: ‘he made some works of the highest quality and that will endure.’ It’s hard not to hear the reservation in Matisse’s encomium: ‘one of the greatest’; ‘some works’. Matisse was not entirely disinterested. He was defending in Bonnard the pleasure principle the two painters had in common, at a time when Picasso’s Guernica was imposing its melodrama.

Monet painted the façade of Notre Dame Cathedral in Rouen again and again in different lights, just as he returned obsessively to the cliff at Étretat like an arm in plaster. Bonnard’s many paintings of his wife Marthe in the bath implicitly propose a similar serious endeavor – a repudiation of the facile, a commitment to the potential infinity of the simple subject, the inexhaustible everyday. He is, we are being told, in a great tradition.

In the Bathroom (oil on board 1907) shows Marthe standing on Dutch blue floral tiles, nude in her red high heels. She is arranging a flimsy chemise over her shoulders and she is a more substantial woman than later representations which turn her into a stuffed doll – curved without being curved, uninflected in some essential way. Her pubic hair is bushy blond and her right nipple a stub. But her face is generic, rudimentary, as if she were in some witness protection programme.

And this is a recurrent problem with Bonnard. View from Uhlenhorst Ferry House on the Outer Alster Lake with St Johnannis (oil on canvas 1913) depicts a regatta. In the foreground, there is an enclosure with six spectators. Four are facing away towards the yachts. Two are facing the viewer. One is an elderly woman with an ochre complexion, a double chin and khaki hair. In the immediate central foreground is a young man in profile, wearing a straw hat with a black headband. The hat is bravura, economical, almost unpainted, its texture explicit in the raw canvas, its realia established with a few casual, almost inadvertent, smears of coffee-toffee-coloured paint. Chapeaux, as the French say for ‘hats off!’ But his features under the brim are hard to find. You can just about make them out. His hat has more individuality. Many Bonnard paintings have passages that are hard to read and feel clumsy. There is a dachshund in profile to the very bottom left of Young Woman in the Garden (oil on canvas 1921-3 / 1945-6) which is a visual enigma, a botch not a bitch.

Bonnard was ready with alibis for the criticism: ‘often it is the improbable that is true’; ‘faults sometimes give life to a picture.’ With Matisse, particularly the drawings, you accede to the justice of this position, when a breast, or an arm, or a leg, is candidly, casually, radically distorted – in the interests of spontaneity, a less pedantic accuracy. With Bonnard, the authority is all in the apothegm.

Room 1 at this Tate Modern show has Nude Against the Light (oil on canvas 1919-20). The body is curiously doubtful and vague – as are many Bonnard nudes – but still within the range of possibility. Photographs of Marthe in the nude show a more conventional body. Here, the legs are strangely tubular, apparently borrowed from Theresa May. There is an uncomfortable, unresolved relationship between the breasts and the ribcage. Her figure is lit from a window behind her. She stands, wearing heels, on a lozenge of bright light. There is a touch of light on her right collarbone and brightness along the right side of her body from her waist down to her ankle. The real problem is the face, which is facing away from the light source, yet the nose is improbably and unpersuasively picked out by white paint. Like the nose-guard on a Norman helmet. It deploys the perfunctory, coarse semiology acceptable, indeed inevitable, in the linocut. Without it, we’d be confronting a face as blank as the face in an August Macke. Instead, we have something betwixt and between, neither the one nor the other.

Nude Crouching in the Tub (oil on canvas 1918) is based on a photograph, in which the foreground is taken up with a large towel. In the background, there is a curtained-off dresser with a bucket in front of it. Both towel and bucket have been edited out of the painting. The interest for me is the fault that results from following the photograph. The towel has been replaced by a jug. The bucket has vaporised. The arms are disposed differently. Her left leg (our right) is on point, the heel raised. Quite how the thigh relates to the torso is a mystery. In the middle of the picture, between her legs, is an unreadable enigma – a clump of je ne sais quoi, which is actually the foot of her right leg, as we can clearly see from the photograph. It is bent at the toes and the heel is also in the air. In the photograph, the continuity of foot and leg is clear. In the painting, the foot looks like an unaccountable, unprepossessing, irregular root vegetable. It is a fault that doesn’t lend life to the picture – only confusion and a clumsy mistake. The face here isn’t a problem, though, because the woman is looking down and we see only the top of her head.

Dining Room in the Country (oil on canvas 1913), if read from left to right, moves from the simplicity of indoors to the profusion of outdoors. The windows are open and a woman leans in, resting her right arm on the windowsill. Her eyes are faintly Chinese. There is a cat on a deckchair, with white eyes, otherwise taking its colour from the fabric of the deckchair. A little girl in the garden has her arms outstretched, perhaps to catch a butterfly. She is practically lost in the paint, completely inconspicuous in her virtual absence. Once seen (and you have to look hard), she becomes a problem, an index of effective invisibility, an eye-test, a barely legible bottom line, a difficulty.

Matisse thought there were some works of the highest quality. There are. Some searching, acute, subtle self-portraits. And of course, the notorious pictures of Marthe indulging her hydrotherapy for undisclosed psychological problems. She was reliably unreliable. Vuillard was long apprised of the marital situation and smiled ruefully when he heard Bonnard had invited the young painter Jacques Salomon and his wife Annette. The invitation was rescinded when Marthe attacked Annette: ‘Your husband wanted to watch Pierre working, he wanted to steal all his tricks…’ Long before that, in 1923, Bonnard had an affair with Renée Monchaty but cancelled his engagement to her and married Marthe instead. Shortly afterwards, in a little month, Monchaty committed suicide in a hotel room. Marthe was a major complication.

Hydrotherapy – paraldehyde and lukewarm baths – was then standard asylum procedure in the treatment of mental disorder. Containment rather than cure. Marthe’s private regimen was designed to alleviate her condition, whatever precisely that was. Rather than certification and confinement, she lay between the deep walls of her bath.

The Bath (oil on canvas 1925) is an arrangement of horizontals, of strata, a kind of geological layering. At the bottom, a thin wedge of decorative tiles. Immediately above this yellow sliver, another tapering length of pink for the outside of the bath. Then the rolled vanilla rim of the bath’s nearest edge. Then the grey-blue bath water and a much wider white enamel bath side, curving just a fraction at the right. Above that, a stretch of yellow tiles with very thick grouting. The cropped horizontals are perfectly readable and realistic but their form is like an encaustic Jasper Johns flag.

And Marthe? Her left leg is half hidden from the knee. Her right leg is continuous but the foot is cropped. Her right arm is another horizontal. The body is subdued and nearly featureless – a single gill for the knee, indeterminate genitalia, a rudimentary belly button, barely visible nipples. It could be a corpse, drained and bloodless, in a high-sided sarcophagus, were it not for the hectic jam of her cheeks. Think of the Keith Douglas poem: ‘Simplify me when I’m dead.’ The painting is all restraint.

Nude in the Bath (oil on canvas 1925) is the same subject but the treatment is diametrically opposite – pictured vertically, in fact. The deep bath takes up the right half of the canvas and contains two legs and a bit of pelvis. The floral bath mat is a version of the bath. It has a narrow border and a wider centre. To the left is the cropped figure of Bonnard in his dressing gown, one slipper in sight. We can just see his palette. He has no head. The cropping is crucial, properly domestic in its suggestion of clutter and lack of hierarchy, despite the clear composition. In the background is a stool heaped with clothes or towels. Its two legs are as important visually as the legs of Marthe in the bath. The whole has an air of happenstance.

Nude in the Bath (oil on canvas 1936) is a more luminous variation. The floor is a turquoise mosaic of fish scales with a white corner of bath mat just poking into the bottom of the picture. The squat feet of the bath are chunkily on show. In conjunction with the scales on the floor, Marthe’s ankles are crossed to create a mermaid effect. On the floor at the head of the bath are tiny lozenges of sunlight, a sort of Danae effect. The expression ‘bathed in light’ seems appropriate. However, it has to be said that the head and the shoulders are a disaster of discontinuity and depiction – the old Bonnard problem.

Bonnard’s self-portraits are equally, counterintuitively, various. There are four in this show, all of them interesting. The Boxer (oil on canvas 1931) depicts Bonnard’s bony chest, his raised red fists, his muscular left arm. It is a curiously powerful image, given that so much of the features – that red face – are impossible to make out. Then you see that Bonnard can’t see and he has painted his short-sightedness – a self-portrait of a man without his spectacles. A first in painting.

Self-Portrait (water colours, gouache and graphite 1930) shows Bonnard in three-quarter profile, this time with his spectacles. He is wearing a quilted check dressing gown, held together at the front by his right hand. His pyramid moustache and his nostrils are an echo, a repeat – but inexact like a doubled image out of register. Bonnard’s palette is beautifully restricted: the pale blues of the dressing gown, the pink and white ceiling, and to the right two air-force blue vertical lines. And the face? Definitely down in the mouth. And the delicacy of the colours carries its clear import. In Rilke’s poem about his father’s photograph (‘Jugend Bilnis meines Vaters’), we read (in Robert Lowell’s version):

I cannot understand
my father as he bleaches on this page –

Oh quickly disappearing photograph
in my more slowly disappearing hand!

Bonnard’s pigment here isn’t permanent but poignant. It is temporary, telling, transient.

Self-Portrait (oil on canvas 1938) depicts Bonnard with a vest under his shirt or possibly dressing gown. He is frowning slightly at the daily face we all encounter in the bathroom mirror – the face in neutral, expressing nothing. Another first?

Finally, Self-Portrait (oil on canvas 1945). Painted two years before his death, Bonnard is wearing a v-necked kimono. His upper lip is longer. His mouth is slightly open. His tongue is visible. The nose is sharper. And his eyes are black almonds. He might be the blinded Gloucester. Or an Emperor about to abdicate this life.

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