The art of Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) conjures up images of intimate bourgeois interiors suffused with high key, sun-drenched colour. Another notable feature of Bonnard’s work is the near-ubiquity of his mistress, muse and – eventually – wife, Marthe de Méligny. So omnipresent is Marthe in his paintings, in fact, that Julian Barnes called his 1998 essay on the artist ‘Bonnard: Marthe, Marthe, Marthe, Marthe’.
There is indeed a lot of Marthe in Tate Modern’s new Bonnard show, which, with around 100 works, is the largest in London for twenty years. Here she is taking coffee behind a huge expanse of red-checked tablecloth. There she is petting their dachshund Ubu Roi (named after Alfred Jarry’s play). Above all, she’s endlessly bathing: Marthe suffered from a nervous condition which required frequent washing and, later, courses of hydrotherapy. Variously described as ‘a touchy elf’ with ‘a weirdly savage, harsh voice’, she is said to have ‘hopped about on very high heels like some bright-plumaged bird’. Marthe died in 1942 but she continued to figure prominently in Bonnard’s paintings right up to his own death five years later.
What’s unusual about the Tate show, though, is that it introduces us to aspects of Bonnard’s art that I for one had no absolutely idea about. It turns out that he wasn’t just a ‘painter of happiness’, oblivious to the outside world. He lived through two world wars, after all. Consider ‘A Village in Ruins near Ham’ (above), the outcome of a trip that Bonnard made to the Western Front in 1917, which wouldn’t look out of place hanging in the Army Museum in Paris. Or another curious work, ‘The Fourteenth of July’ of 1918, where the patriotic message is even more overt. If there was less of this sort of thing in the Second World War – just a glimpse of blackout curtain in the back of the self-portrait from 1945 – by then Bonnard was in his seventies and in any case there were severe restrictions on travel during the German occupation.
Even more revealing, and further contradicting the cliché that Bonnard was a mere intimiste painter, are his landscapes, which make up getting on for half of the works shown here. I’m not talking about the glimpses of garden that often crop up in his interiors; I mean stand-alone landscapes, from the modestly-sized, Cézannesque views of the countryside round his home at Le Cannet all the way up to the 10ft-wide ‘Summer’ (1917), which is like an upscaled version of one of Matisse’s Arcadian fantasies. We’re a long way from Marthe’s parlour, at any rate. It’s true, though, that Bonnard, unlike his friend Monet, never actually painted outdoors; he always worked his canvases up indoors from sketches made on the spot. ‘I have all my subjects to hand,’ he once said: ‘I go and look at them, I take notes. Then I go home. And before I start painting I reflect, I dream’.
Throughout the show, you’ll find your sensory system under continuous barrage from Bonnard’s fabulous grasp of colour harmonies and extraordinary range of markings, often verging on abstraction, nowhere more so than in ‘Nude in the Bath’ of 1936-38 (below). Look at the kaleidoscopic effect that Bonnard achieves in the upper third of the painting as golden light shimmers across the blue-tiled wall. Sublime.
(Header image: Summer 1917, Oil on canvas, 2600 X 3400 mm, Fondation Marguerite et Aimé Maeght, Saint-Paul-France)