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"The Colour of Memory" of Pierre Bonnard at TATE MODERN

An exclusive interview about an exhibition with rarely shown paintings

By: EBR - Posted: Tuesday, November 27, 2018

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World events, images, society effects, impressions and emotions dance hand in hand in Bonnard's paintings and leave his mark for future artistic generations. He is characterized as the 20th century artist and an influential figure for most of his admirers putting abstact painting in the first plan, as Helen O' Malley outlines
World events, images, society effects, impressions and emotions dance hand in hand in Bonnard's paintings and leave his mark for future artistic generations. He is characterized as the 20th century artist and an influential figure for most of his admirers putting abstact painting in the first plan, as Helen O' Malley outlines

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By  Alexandra Papaisidorou*

European Business Review presents an exclusive interview on the occassion of Pierre Bonnard's unique new exhibition at TATE Modern. The Assistant Curator of "The Colour of Memory" Helen O' Malley gives us special insight over the inspiration of the great artist and how the full breadth of the artist's practice was shaped. 

Tate Modern hosts a series of 100 works of his art which reveal Bonnard's intense colours and modern compositions that transformed painting in the first half of 20th century.

 World events, images, society effects, impressions and emotions dance hand in hand in Bonnard's paintings and leave his mark for future artistic generations. He is characterized as the 20th century artist and an influential figure for most of his admirers putting abstact painting in the first plan, as Helen O' Malley outlines. 

Tate Modern will be flooded by the artist's odor through his vibrant garden scenes and the gentleness of his paintbrush while depicting scenes of his wife every day epitomises, Marthe de Meligny. EBR proudly stand by the French artist's works of art which compose “The Colour of Memory” exhibition that upon further inspection reveals something more interesting and unsettling and do seduce each viewer. 

Pierre Bonnard's exhibitions are usually divided into sections (Japanism, intimacy, the unexpected, photography, portraits, wild garden, colour, and great decorative works) – how would you characterise the "The Colour of Memory"? 

We’ve made the decision to adopt a chronological hang for the Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory exhibition. Bonnard was often characterised as a reclusive artist, withdrawn from contemporary events. He’s best known for his depictions of domestic life; however his subject matter is enormously diverse. One of the aspirations of the exhibition is to insert him back into history. 

Bonnard will be repositioned as a man who engaged with the world around him. The chronological hang will allow us to reveal the overlooked areas of his activities-from the city scenes and panoramic landscapes he painted during his frequent travels across France, to his practice of working simultaneously on different paintings side by side, and his response to the crises of both the First and Second World War. Presenting the works in the order in which they were made opens up new questions, allowing for a reassessment of Bonnard’s career. 


How does Bonnard’s personal life influence his artistic inspiration? 

Bonnard’s relationship with his wife, Marthe de Meligny is at the core of his work. She was his primary muse, featuring in 100s of his paintings. One of the most fascinating aspects of these works is that they were created primarily from memory.

 Bonnard would catch glimpses of his wife as she moved through their home; cooking, reading, bathing. He would create quick sketches in his notebooks, using them are source material for his paintings, which he completed later in the studio. 

The paintings of his wife are some of the most glorious, vivid and on occasion, unbearably sad works of his career. Although Bonnard and de Meligny remained together for over 50 years, their relationship was by no means simple. They went through various ups and downs. Bonnard captures the intimacy and melancholy of their relationship in paintings such as Nude in the bath, 1936.

 He creates a dappled surface, in which the figure appears to begin to break down, merging with her surroundings. His experimental use of colour suggests a break with reality. He somehow manages to create a space between what he is looking at and thinking about. It is a memory space, which offers a fascinating, if somewhat ambiguous insight, into the joy and strain at the heart of their complex relationship.

With numerous Bonnard exhibitions held all over the world over, why should people visit this show at Tate Modern? 

The show marks the UK’s first major exhibition of Pierre Bonnard in 20 years. The unique difference between Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory and many of the exhibitions that have come before, is that our show will focus specifically on the period between 1912 and 1947. 1912 marked a radical shift in Bonnard’s practice. 

This shift was stimulated by his awareness of the change in contemporary art in Paris and his dissatisfaction with certain threads in his earlier work. Bonnard began to reassess his use of colour, placing an increased emphasis on saturation. Our exhibition will explore the experiments and achievements of this innovative painter, following the emergence of his unique new style. It aims to offer a fresh insight into the life and practice of Pierre Bonnard, reasserting his position as one of the greatest colourists of the early 20th century.  

How many paintings will be brought together at Tate by the French artist? Will they be arranged chronologically or according to subject matter? 

The exhibition will include around 100 paintings. These paintings will be drawn from a combination of private and public collections from around the world, including the Musee D’Orsay, Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 

Visitors will experience the full breadth of Bonnard’s practice, with key works such as The Studio with Mimosas, 1939-46 (Centre Pompidou), Nude in an Interior, c. 1935 (National Gallery of Art, Washington) and Summer, 1917 (Fondation Maeght) being shown at Tate for the first time in this exhibition. Important paintings and drawings from Tate’s collection will also feature in the show, including The Window, 1915 and The Bath, 1925, as well as a range of preparatory drawings for Coffee, c.1913 and The Bowl of Milk, c.1919. 


While Matisse, a personal friend, praised Bonnard after his death in 1947 as “a great painter, for today and for the future,” Picasso, no admirer, called his painting style “a potpourri of indecision.” What are your comments on that? 

In 1947, soon after Bonnard’s death Christian Zervos published an article titled “Is Pierre Bonnard a great painter?” in Cahiers d’Art, which was one of the most influential art magazines at that time. The article was a damning dismissal of Bonnard’s practice, in which Zervos stated that admiration for Bonnard’s work is shared only by those who “know nothing about the great difficulties of art and cling above all to what is facile and agreeable.”

 Henri Matisse, a close friend and supporter of Bonnard’s work, was outraged by the article, so much so that he scrawled the statement “Yes! I certify that Pierre Bonnard is a great painter, for today and for the future” across the cover of the article, before posting it to Zervos. 

Pierre Bonnard holds an ambivalent position within the history of twentieth-century art, lying somewhat outside what came to be regarded as the canonical path of modernism. He achieved early success between 1890 and 1900, as part of the French avant-garde group, Les Nabis. 

However, his disengagement from the development of cubism and later surrealism, limited the consideration of his work. Picasso took great issue with the relationship of Bonnard’s work to nature, implying that it was purely representational. Similarly, he suggested that Bonnard’s layered application of colour was due to a lack of clarity in his own vision. 

While Bonnard supported the development of abstraction, he found the strict spatial formula dictated by the cubist movement deeply limiting. He did undoubtedly draw upon his surroundings for inspiration, however he never allowed himself to be restricted by his environment. Bonnard shifted and adapted his compositions to enrich the emotional and psychological content of his work. 

Each colour and brush stroke, had a place in the overall composition. They were not frivolous gestures on Bonnard’s part but measured decisions. Although Bonnard worked towards abstraction in a slower and more organic way than the cubists, to discount him for choosing to follow his own path seems misguided. He carved out an autonomous style, which is something to be celebrated.  


Can you pick two favourite paintings and describe to our readers how they highlight Bonnard uniqueness?

Two of my favourite paintings are The Garden, 1936 (Musee d'Art moderne de la Ville de Paris) and Bathers at the end of the day, 1945 (Le Musee Bonnard au Cannet). Bonnard’s unique handling of colour and innovative sense of composition are captured in these works. 

The Garden, 1936 depicts the artist’s home in Le Bosquet. The painting bears testament to Bonnard’s exquisite ability to use juxtapositions of colour to transcend reality. When a person stands in the garden, they don’t fix their eyes straight ahead, but let them wander, taking in their surroundings. 

Bonnard draws the garden in, creating an immersive explosion of coloured foliage and vegetation. He builds up the painting, capturing the feeling and experience of being in the garden. Bonnard’s process of constructing through memory, is key to the success of this work for it allows him the flexibility to experiment with both perspective and colour, lifting the garden scene to new heights.

A similar approach is employed in Bathers at the end of the day, 1945. Although experience is taken as a starting point, as evidenced by the title of the work, the swimming figures emerge through colourful hues of reds and yellows. The artist departs from reality by favouring abstract layers of blues, greens, reds and whites.

 Bathers at the end of the day, 1945 gives a sense of Bonnard’s continuing innovations in the final stage of his career. A diverse range of artists have been influenced by Pierre Bonnard since his death in 1947, from Mark Rothko to Patrick Heron. The connection to these artists can be seen clearly in works such as The Garden, 1936 and Bathers at the end of the day, 1945.

Is Tate's exhibition "The Colour of Memory" a new "view" of Bonnard?

Most definitely. The exhibition aims to show the work of this innovative and much-loved French painter in a completely new light. The exhibition will emphasise Bonnard as a 20th century artist, who like his friend and contemporary Henri Matisse-had a profound impact on modern painting. It will allow a new generation to discover Bonnard’s unparalleled ability to capture fleeting moments, memories and emotions through colour, while surprising those who think they already know the artist.


*Editor-at-large & Phd candidate of European & International Relations
**Answers by Helen O Malley, Assistant Curator, Tate Modern.
***The C C Land Exhibition: Pierre Bonnard - The Colour of Memory is at Tate Modern from 23 January to 6 May 2019.

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