Saturday 21 March 2020


Tate Modern, London

“I wanted to forget everything that I knew. I sought to learn what I did not know. I started my studies again.”

The Colour Bar

The art of Pierre Bonnard divided his day. While Matisse championed his work Picasso loftily dismissed him as “just another neo-Impressionist… the end of an old idea”, slating his work as “a potpourri of indecision”, claiming he shouldn’t even be seen as a Modernist.

And it continues to divide. It’s notable this show got the same divergent response as Impressionist exhibitions, the crowds flocking to it while critics often sniffed. “Everything was absolutely lovely,” said Adrian Searle in the Guardian, “I couldn’t wait to get away.” At the Arts Desk, Florence Hallet calls it “a fulsome invitation to wallow aimlessly in colour.”

Why should this be? Bonnard first visited the south of France in 1908, and bought a house there in 1926 inside which at least a hundred and fifty of his works are set. Inspired by the region’s light and landscape, he kept to a narrow range of subjects and styles. All of this resulted in him becoming more and more idiosyncratic, more remote from the wider world. The First World War at times came literally within his earshot, but he continued to indifferently paint his interiors.

His fascination with rich, saturated colours, combined with his self-limited range of subject matters, can make him seem concerned only with surfaces. Like Whistler, ostensibly representational art is really just a series of colour fields. Like his frequent subject the woman bather, his art can seen as relaxing for the eye as a warm bath is for the body. As other artists struggled to remake the world, he could only decorate.

And unlike his compatriot Matisse, he was never proto-abstract enough to be inserted into the “path to abstraction” narrative (as discussed in an old post on Kandinsky), and so was stuffed in the only other place the theory had space for. He came to be seen as a holdover.

Because he so often painted himself and people around him recognisably, others try the current fashion in looking for biographical explanations. This picture must have been done after a lovers’ tiff, that one after reconciliation, and so on. But this flounders, failing to explain for example the often long gestation period of his work. Ultimately it looks in the wrong place. Bonnard’s art is about its formal qualities.

The “wallow aimlessly” accusations seem to suggest Bonnard is using the wrong colours, upchucking gaudy daubs like his art is just a kind of enticing advert for itself. But the vehemence suggests an underlying hostility to colour altogether. As if line and form are expressive tools, while colour is forever consigned to be their mere handmaiden. Which seems to come from a puritan mindset, where we go to galleries for self-improvement not enjoyment and never the twain can mix.

At times he almost seems to accept this critique. “Colour has carried me away,” he said. “I sacrificed form to it almost unconsciously.” Yet at another time: “I realised that colour could express everything…. That it was possible to translate light and shapes and character by colour alone.”

It’s the second point which carries. If he was using colour, maybe he was using it, as an expressive device. It’s noticeable that black-and-white reproductions of Bonnard aren’t just inadequate, they verge on the incomprehensible. They simply don’t make sense, because vital information is missing.

Yet some try to simply invert this critique, claiming that through troubled times he remained “the painter of happiness”, offering untroubled idylls as an antidote to the brute external world. Searle and (perhaps more unusually) Picasso were wrong. But those guys are truly missing the point. The true Bonnard is elsewhere.

”The Painter Was There”

True, something like ’Nude In the Bath’ (1936, above) has an almost rhapsodic use of colour, setting bright cyans against shimmering gold and rich purples. Even though the figure’s placed centrally, rather than her becoming the focus of our attention the whole canvas seems to come alive. Yet she seems to be the only solid element in the room, everything else as incandescent and insubstantial as the dappled water or golden light pouring through the window. Even the tub, something we rather rely on as being solid, seems to dissolve into the room. (Check it out at the upper left.)

Note how the figure is indulged yet also isolated, the bath forming a secondary frame around her. Unusually with Bonnard a biographical detail helps us. For Marthe de Méligny (his “mistress”, to use the terminology of the time) the hot tub wasn’t just chill-out time. Baths alleviated her ailments, and so in a sense became her drug.

There’s nothing symbolic in this picture. The bathwater doesn’t stand for baptism, the gold for alchemy or anything like that. But in his younger, Parisian days Bonnard had associated with the movement. And while he soon dropped the symbolic part of Symbolism, he retains its mood. And the sumptuousness of Symbolism slid easily into decadence. It’s art which lures you into its world with a siren-like appeal, and does nothing to hide that. This is an enchanted faerie realm you’ll never find your way back from. So the work’s richness is shot through with melancholia. (Timothy Hyman makes a fairly convincing case that Bonnard was about reconciling the “internal” of Symbolism with the “empirical” nature of Impressionism, in ’Bonnard’,, Thames & Hudson.)

Other works give a clearer idea of what Bonnard was about. In ’Mirror Above a Washstand’ (1908, above) a nude, who you might expect to fill the frame, is a cropped toros sighted in a mirror. Given which we should be able to see the painter reflected - in fact he should be placed dead centre. And often with Bonnard we do. But here he’s absent.

Whereas it takes you a second to notice the other figure, looking back at us. This figure holds a cup, which seems to align with the jug on the washstand, as the nude’s rounded bum should be associated with the dish. Without a painter but with a returned gaze, intimacy and voyeurism seem to co-exist.

And reflections are to become a repeated motif. Sometimes taking up virtually the whole picture. (His self-portraits for example often include the frame of the mirror he used.) At others they’re just ghost reflections in the glass of windows and doors. Why do such a thing? Why not a more straightforward view?

Taking Bonnard’s dislike of working from life the show makes memory, or more accurately its inherent ambiguity, his prevailing theme. It even takes this thesis up in its title. And it’s not alone. He’s regularly compared to Proust, Hallett describing this mood as “the melancholy of time lost.” Michael Prodger in the New Statesman claims “his enigmatic pictures are ripe with the immanence of decline.”

And this would help to explain his penchant for portraying human figures as transient things, barely discernible reflections in windows or blurring into walls. These don’t look like the extended phantoms of long-exposure photographs but have a similar feel to them.

However, I’m not so sure of it. It’s true that not just the themes repeat, Marthe for example seems to remain a certain age like an aquatic Peter Pan. Yet when first painted she was that age, so where is the “time lost” there?

And what of that much-quoted comment that he wanted to convey the sensation of first walking into a new room, and the jmble of impressions which hit you. What has that got to do with memory?

Mirrors act as a frame within a frame, disrupting the integrity of pictorial space and creating a kind of puzzle image. Bonnard’s interest in the artifice, the mechanics of art, is always foregrounded. These are paintings which know they’re paintings, which aren’t trying to be anything else. And it starts with figures gazing back at us. “Let it be felt that the painter was there,” he wrote.

Art tends to either centre on the human body or make a feature of not doing so, such as making people diminutive dots before mighty mountainscapes. To slice off more than half of the figure, as in ’Nude In An Interior’ (1935, above) seems an almost audacious act. Yet the composition is more audacious still, a rigid grid of verticals against horizontals. Only the object on the foreground table is angled, even the two tables are painted as if with a set square.

If we count the two tables and the deep red at the back of the back room as a rug above the carpet, there are seven surfaces here. All of which are patterned, or brightly or deeply coloured, to pull our attention away from the thin slice of the supposed subject matter. The colour scheme is riotous, looked at from top down one combination of orange and red gives way to another. The eye is set a merry dance. Bonnard denies certainties and instead confounds us to get us looking.

And yet The Table’ (1925, above) while theoretically employing perspective relies more on the elevated viewpoint. So high that to paint it, you’d need another table to stand on. This viewpoint is used to extend the distance between the dishes on that table. Though some objects overlap peripherally, each is kept clearly distinct. One of the few that doesn’t, as if to underline the point, is a clear glass bottle. The effect is almost diagrammatic, as if labels were about to arrive and tell us what each dish wash. Above and behind become interchangeable terms. (A device he almost certainly picked up from Japanese prints.) And this simplifying, this literal laying out of the image, goes alongside his penchant for visual puzzles.

What is Bonnard up to? Let’s start with a seemingly trivial detail then go on to generalise wildly. If the Impressionists insisted on painting from life, to capture verite images, Bonnard always started from life but never painted from it. By necessity they painted quickly, catching the light before it changed. While Bonnard could spend years composing a painting, with multiple preparatory sketches. (Some on show here.) “The presence of an object is a hindrance for the painter while he is painting,” he’d insist. “I do not let myself become absorbed by the object itself.” Or, at another time, “the pojnt of departure for a painting is an idea.”

For the Impressionists had predicated their approach on their observational skills. A keen eye, shorn of the old prejudices about the way things ‘should’ look, could take in and capture that moment on a canvas. Too many paintings had looked like stiltedly posed photographs, fixed figures putting on their best dress and necessary expressions, a stiff simulation of life. (Not always of course, but too often.) Impressionism excelled as the photo which magically seemed to work itself out, laid out neatly but without obvious arrangement, like a perfect composition had been hit on by sheer luck. It made everyday life seem poetic.

Whereas Bonnard looks like one of those accidentally taken photos, where everyone should have lined up and everything should have been arranged but was snapped slightly too early or too late. And the world it captures doesn’t just seem disordered so much as ungraspable. What initially looks straightforward comes to befuddle us, the seemingly solid proving slippery. It’s more than merely misremembering, we lost our grasp of things even when they were there in front of us.

And this includes Bonnard himself, the artist trying to stand outside the picture frame but failing, and by extension us the viewer. His vibrant, luxurious use of colour also comes in here, seducing the eye then abandoning it once it’s lost.

It may be significant that Impressionism had begun before the hand-held camera, while Bonnard arrives after it. Once you freeze life, once you were able to strike out that distracting motion, it was thought you would finally have the butterfly pinned. It will lie exposed and explicable before you. At which point Bonnard appears to say “non”.

Commonly labelled a post-Impressionist, it may be closer to call him an anti-Impressionist. Hyman has commented: “Using Impressionist language for his own ends… Bonnard was reversing Impressionism, standing it on its head.” Bonnard himself said: “When my friends and I decided to pick up the research of the Impressionists, and to attempt to take it further, we wanted to outshine them in their naturalistic impressions of culture…. There was a lot more to be got out of colour as a means of expression.”

There are Manets, for example, which create a mystery around the relationship between the characters. But Bonnard isn’t concerned with narrative in this way. You don’t look at a Bonnard and wonder as to what the story might be. With him it’s not the lives of others but existence itself which proves mystifying. Order is undermined, not even as something we briefly impose upon the world but a comforting lie we like to tell ourselves. In brief, Bonnard paints life passing us by, disappearing as soon as we try to get a fix on it. We’re left with only a clutch of mystifying fragments.

There’s a passage from an Auden poem, ‘As I Walked Out One Morning’, I always associate with Bonnard:

“O plunge your hands in the water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you’ve missed”

His widespread restriction to domestic scenes (a common criticism) is similar to Cubism’s restricting itself to the same still-life objects - which no-one worries about at all. But it’s as necessary for him as it was for them. There’s nothing unusual about his subject matter, this is everyday stuff we should grasp easily. The painting is all about the way that stuff then gets depicted. But while Cubism defamiliarised the objects we see, subjecting them to the shattering effect of time, Bonnard gets us to question our own senses.

And this was the era where Modernism was decluttering, dropping its burdensome baggage so its now-open hands could reach out and capture life. Bonnard paints the impossibility of this, an art that is always aestheticised, always mired within itself. The quote up top is the Modernist credo, allowing art to escape accumulated conventions. Bonnard applies it to Modernism itself.

And it’s this, the incessant desire to question the making of art from first principles, which makes Bonnard quintessentially Modernist. Certainly more so than those who thought it meant merely staying modern.

The Room Is the View

Bonnard, then, is like a pianist who confines himself to a narrow range. He knows what notes work for him, and sees no need for the rest. But he does it knowing that narrowing the parameters makes us more attuned to smaller changes between them. In fact it makes more sense to arrange his work around his themes than it does chronologically. (Particularly once he hits his mature years.) Let’s take two standards from his repertoire he worked and reworked with endless variants, the bathing woman and the garden view.

’The Bath’ (1925, above) is clearly set in the same room as the earlier ‘Nude In the Bath’, but the similarities effectively end there. It’s so closely cropped as to be almost insanely reductive, a series of horizontal lines which include those that make up a human figure. Her face is foreshortened but, unusually for the bathing pictures, quite visible. And it’s not at all beautified, sporting a flat and impassive expression. Rather than sensuously curving around one another, her legs stick straight out - like someone’s dumped a mannequin in a tub.

If the first bath looked luxurious, here she’s taking a bath the way a commuter takes a train. With the first bath you know on sight that water’s warm and soothing. No such indication this time round. This could be the treatment bath required of an institution inmate.

Going further still, the Tate comments “the effect is strangely lifeless, and almost tomb-like, as if the painting were a silent expression of sorrow for Marthe's plight.” Rather than variants on a theme, they’re virtually yin and yang.

Another painting titled ‘Nude in the Bath’, (1925, above) seems to be the same scene as ’The Bath’, just from another angle. Initially the composition looks nonsensical, as if the bath has been laid up on end, or the previous work had been hung sideways up. And Bonnard here is not the artist, offering us his eyes to see through, but an intruding torso and leg. The result is a playing card image with legs shown both ways up. Yet the figures seem to share a colour scheme, against the brighter oranges and reds of the room. Notably the earlier ‘Man and Woman’ (1900) also divides the figures, by placing a screen between them.

Outside Intrudes

’The Dining Room in the Country’ (1913, above) is, on first sight, an interior with some country views. Even if, with both the door and window wide open, the country view takes up night-on half the canvas. But the room’s in deeper colours, ruddy oranges and browns, while the outdoors is lighter and brighter, so it’s the interior which attracts the eye.

Yet the figure we see, leaning on the window-frame, is colour-coded with the room but stands outside. We then notice two cats, one sitting on each chair. And then another human figure, much more camouflaged, through the doorframe. The animals are indoors, nature relocated and domesticated, the humans standing without. As you look at it longer even the seemingly rigid colour scheme division starts to break down. The flickering greens and oranges of the chair seat are echoed in the bush just beyond the door.

Nature is not just a view framed by the window. The centre of attention isn’t the human figure, but the space created by the open doorway. The way the picture feels, that is where we are - in the threshold space between indoors and out. And it may be epitomised by the graduated light playing on the door.

Barry Schwabsky said of Bonnard “the notions of inside and outside are particularly permeable to each other.” (Tate Etc. Magazine 45, Spring ’19) Paintings are normally of somewhere, set in a place neatly summarised by the title. Bonnard’s places are liminal. Schwabsky also said “Bonnard’s was an art of flux”. But Bonnard rarely painted movement. The flux comes for our eye, when it tries to get a fix on one of his works and doesn’t find this as easy as it looks.

And as there were yin-and-yang bath paintings, compare that to ’Large Dining Room Overlooking the Garden’ (1934/5, above), which reconfigures these elements to tell quite a different tale. This time not only is the window firmly closed, but a table blocks the width of the canvas between it and us. Moreover, the table’s made an attention-grabbing purple and strewn with visual obstacles. It’s composed in the same ‘stacked’ style as ’The Table, which only makes the view outside the window seem more remote.

The human figure is firmly within the room, and not only placed behind the vase of flowers it’s quite hard to discern where they end and she starts. She’s then colour-coded with the room, as if blending in with those solid walls. Overall the deeper, richer colours make the painting seem more ‘locked down’, a fixed point.

Whereas ‘The Studio With Mimosa’ (1939/46) uses the window and stretch of wall as a framing device for the view, both compositionally and in terms of colour tones. The vibrant yellow of the mimosa doesn’t just dominate the view, it feels like it’s beaming out it’s own sunlight - pouring through the glass, bathing the room and filling our vision.

Impressionists could paint buildings in nature which just seemed to blend into the scenery. Though art books always consider it the first Modernist movement, it upheld the Romantic notion of nature as an inscrutable force which the artist could only channel. Similarly Monet and Pissarro would paint from balconies or terraces, yet felt no obligation to put their viewpoint into their work. With Bonnard, even if nature is not just contained by a frame, he is reluctant to abandon that frame altogether. Art cannot be just a capturing of nature, it is always something cultured. “Art is not Nature”, he said pithily.

Though, rather than making some philosophical point about perception, Bonnard may simply need this balancing element. There are works where the colour runs too wild, and it starts to screw with the image’s decipherability altogether. ’The Garden Seen from the Terrace’ (1924, above) is perhaps already close to tipping over, and we need the handholds of the terrace, the path and the solid orange blob of the figure. Yet even here Bonnard allows for counter elements, the white paper and black inkwell on the table.

Then, every now and again, Bonnard would hit some notes that completely surprised you. ’The Fourteenth of July’ (1918, above) portrays a crowd on France’s National Day. As a young man he’d shared the progressive views of his Parisian group, though this never seems to have progressed beyond bog-standard bohemian individualism. By this point he’d regressed into nationalism.

And yet this is not the orderly onlookers who shout “hurrah” at passing dignitaries, the human equivalent of bright flapping bunting - this is an unruly mob if ever there was. It’s like seeing neatly outlined, well-behaved individuals being boiled down into a seething mass. It’s as grotesque and carnivalesque as Ensor. And remarkably similar to the way Nature is shown in Romantic art, this crowd is savage, unknowable and more than a little frightening – yet we feel like we belong among them.


Me the past year or so: “The only way I can ever see myself catching up with my visual arts posts is if there were no new exhibitions for months on end.”

Me now: “Hmmmm...”


  1. I know little about art and care little for it. I had literally never heard of Bombard before seeing this blog post.yet you made me care and held my attention. This is outstanding writing. Thank you.

    1. Thanks Mike! That comment is so nice that now I don't know how to tell you that you got the artist's name wrong! Unless you were thinking of some hybrid between Bonnard and Bomberg, which actually I would like to see.

    2. Bonnard! Bonnard! (I don't know where Bombard was coming from, but cut me some slack as I was typing on my terrible Kindle Fire.)

    3. I would draw a smiley face here if I knew how they went.