Walking around this major retrospective of Pierre Bonnard, you quickly discover that his work is dominated by two things. First, there is his relationship with Marthe de Meligny, his wife and muse. She features in most of his paintings, usually standing slightly off-centre, or emerging from one of her many baths.
He was a painter of the quotidian and the private, working from photographs rather than live models in order to better capture it. This gives his work a sense of intimacy, enhanced here by some clever curation that allows us to observe his process.
But with Bonnard the physical form feels like little more than a pretext for indulging in his lifelong preoccupation: colour. Every painting is a festival of variegated colour, and the way he uses it changes from composition to composition. There are thick splodges of orange, shafts of pure yellow, abstract ripples of blue and grey.
It is all very beautiful, if not always equally interesting. The Tate has recommended “slow looking” as the best way to enjoy this exhibition, but this approach has its disadvantages: linger too long with some of Bonnard’s paintings and you begin to feel you’re seeing him rub up against his technical limitations. I was particularly struck by how low-res his subjects’ faces were in comparison to their bodies. And where is the raw emotion?
The explanatory texts around the exhibition reveal that Bonnard’s love life was not exactly tender – his sometimes-model and long-term mistress, Renee Monchaty, killed herself three weeks after he finally broke off their affair to marry de Meligny.
Even if his marriage was left miraculously unaltered by this event, all domestic life is full of hidden conflicts, and the orderly and serene manner in which he presents his relationship with de Meligny feels imposed, unnatural, as if we’re being denied access to his interior world. One piece of expository text describes him as a ‘painter of happiness’, but unblemished happiness can be stultifying, and in supplicating himself to it Bonnard strips his work of that elusive property – depth.
Another issue – perhaps a structural one with retrospectives in general – is that Bonnard’s oeuvre isn’t really enhanced by this level of context. He lived and painted through both World Wars, though he hardly seems to have noticed: his work remains reliably chirpy throughout, a feature that may have endeared him to war-weary contemporary audiences but now appears uncritical and naive.
Summer, painted 1917, shows a series of figures arranged in peaceful repose around a lush garden. Bonnard’s artistic imagination clearly didn’t permit too much reality: his hermetic little garden paradise walls him off from the endless horror outside. On another artist’s canvas this might be radical, a utopian realisation of a world without war. In Bonnard’s hands it just feels small; evidence of a provincial mind.
Perhaps I am being too unkind. You don’t go to a Bonnard retrospective for commentary or introspection; you go to be drowned in magnificent colour, to get lost in the endless details (he had an obsessive command of minutiae, returning to his paintings over and over to make tiny adjustments). Approach it in a particular spirit and you’ll be rewarded. Just don’t look too long, or think too hard.