by Roderick Conway Morris

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Tate, London
Nude in the Bath by Pierre Bonnard, 1936-38

'One of the greatest painters'

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 1 February 2019


Matisse declared Pierre Bonnard 'one of the greatest painters'; Picasso dismissed him as 'just another neo-Impressionist, a decadent, the end of an old idea, not the beginning of a new one'. But it is part of Bonnard's enduring fascination that he never fitted into any of the artistic movements of the late 19th or 20th centuries.

And it is this one-off quality that gives Bonnard's work so much of its freshness today, as visitors to 'Pierre Bonnard; The Colour of Memory' - an exhibition of around 100 of his works at Tate Modern, curated by Matthew Gale, Helen.O'Malley and Juliette Rizzi - can rediscover for themselves.

The artist has been compared to Marcel Proust as the role of memory was no less important in Bonnard's work, in that everything he painted, whether nudes, interiors or landscapes, was mediated by memory and executed in the solitude of his studio.In his own words: 'The presence of the object, of the motif, is a hindrance for the painter when he is painting. The point of departure for a painting is an idea.'

This idiosyncratic aesthetic set him apart from the Impressionists with their advocacy of en plein air painting. And although he was an obsessive sketcher from life and deeply interested in classical sculpture, his refusal to work directly from the model when he painted deviated from the practices of the likes of Degas and Seurat, whom he much admired. Japanese woodblock prints also had a great impact on his work, not least in their bold use of colour and lack of a single perspective.

One of his points of departure that had definite corporeal form was Marthe de Méligny, whom he met in Paris in 1893 and who became his lifelong Muse (though they were not actually married until 1925). In 1912 Bonnard bought a house in Normandy and in 1926 another near Cannes, after which the couple regularly spent the summer in the former and wintered in the latter.

Marthe seems to have been something of hypochondriac and took to spending many hours in the bath as a form of hydrotherapy. In 1925 this inspired Bonnard to paint the first of his famous images of Marthe reposing in the bath, a hitherto unknown sub-genre of the reclining nude. The first of these, with the cold white porcelain and muted grey-green renderings of Marthe's flesh, are slightly chilling. But later, with the bright Mediterranean sun of the Midi defused through the blinds and the full colour of the artist's palette unleashed on the scene, they become luminous visions and, in one from 1936 on show here, Marthe's submerged body almost takes on the magical form of a mermaid.

Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory; Tate Modern; 23 January - 6 May 2019

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023