The Colour of Memory

A colourfully charming retrospect of an Impressionist who’s dividing opinions at Tate Modern.

Stepping into the ‘The Colour of Memory’, a retrospective of Pierre Bonnard at Tate Modern, I felt a little lackluster and uninspired by the paintings I saw in Room 1. But realising I had 12 more rooms to trudge though, I tried to hold my emotions in check. And I’m glad I did!

The exhibition brings together 100 works focusing on Bonnard’s formative years from 1912 to his death in 1947. Although fleeting in appearance, Bonnard in fact took his time with a painting, often coming back to a piece over a number of months, and sometimes years. Moments already lost in time.

Dining room in the Country
‘Dining room in the Country’, 1913, Oil paint on canvas © Lent by the Minneapolis Institute of Art, The John R. Van Derlip Fund

These are snapshots of his daily life; a glimpse into the private world of an artist. I didn’t fully appreciate this until I took the time to really study the paintings  and the information at hand. Slow looking is definitely recommended in this show.

Like grasping onto a dream from waking, or a fading memory, Bonnard’s paintings are quirky, sometimes crude and always melancholic. ‘Nude in the Bath’ (below) epitomises his adopted painting style and the intimacy of his relationship with his subject Marthe de Méligny. He has captured her at her most vulnerable while she takes a bath as treatment for her various ailments. The colours are experimental and dramatic, with impossible blues and yellows dominating the more faded bluey grey tones of the subject. All of this suggests a painting derived from memory, with some creative license thrown in.

Nude in the Bath
‘Nude in the Bath’, 1936, Oil paint on canvas © Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris

And that’s the overarching theme of the show. Painting from memory, objects, people and the landscape are loosely applied, grasping for solidity and clarity. But that’s putting it kindly. The art critic Adrian Searle was perhaps closer to the mark in his review of Bonnard:

His figures are very hit-and-miss, sometimes crude and absurd; sometimes the distortions seem terrific, at other times horrible.

It was around Room 7 or 8, his wistful paintings began to feel farcical, and his figures decidedly crude and undeveloped. The lesser known Impressionist becomes lost in his own memories, and although his colours hit you like a wave, something is lost in the wake. Don’t get me wrong, some of Bonnard’s paintings and vivacious colours have the power to hold your attention, to draw you in. But one distorted scene blends into the next, leaving you with only a handful of notable works to enjoy, and remember. Whether that’s enough to pay the £18 entry fee will be up to you. For me, I’m sticking to first impressions.

‘The C C Land Exhibition: Pierre Bonnard – The Colour of Memory’ is on at Tate Modern until 6 May. Click to find out more

Banner image: ‘Summer’, 1917, Oil paint on canvas © Fondation Marguerite et Aimé Maeght, Saint-Paul- France

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