Some paintings seem to shimmer with light, but Pierre Bonnard’s images of landscapes, domestic scenes, crowds and bathing women absolutely shake with it. And not just light. They hum with sexuality, vibrate with tension, pulsate with melancholy and almost strobe with colour, colour, colour.
Let me catch my breath and admit, from the start, that there are some dud paintings here. Bonnard (1867-1947) was, at first glance, a pretty traditional painter for turn-of-the-century France. He can easily come across as more old fashioned than his contemporaries like Matisse and Picasso (Pablo thought Pierre was a total hack), and a lot of the darker, more crowded earlier works here are messy, grey, fugly smudges that you’ll never need to see again. But when he hits his stride, he’s brilliant.
The first wave that hits you in this sprawling show is colour: his rippling compositions are drowning in mauves, yellows, oranges and blues, writhing with greens and ochres. Some works are these quasi-abstract geometric splodges of flat planes of intersecting colour, others are pixelated visions of ungraspable light. Some of the planes are so pink, some of the hills so green, that they feel totally unreal. One work is just a big chunk of yellow wall. I love it to death.
But this isn’t just about painting from life or capturing light. Bonnard worked on some of these canvases for years, obsessing over colour and composition, referring back to photos and twisting everything into new shapes. That’s the second wave that hits you: the wave of memory. When he paints his wife Marthe – either racked with desire or filled with the sadness of her eventual illness – he’s doing it to hold on to that little chunk of time. When he paints her with his mistress after both had died, he’s trying to bring them somehow back to life.
And it’s never ‘just’ a landscape with Bonnard. He didn't paint scenery because it was pretty, he painted it as a timestamp of memory, as a document of time’s passing. Sure, the light is amazing, but light fades. Light changes over the years, brightens then dips, just like your life does. At times, his work feels like a desperate, heart-wrenching grasp at passing moments; moments already lost.
You don’t need me to yammer on for hours about how brilliant some of these paintings are (though the five taken out of their frames are just unbelievable, and the one with half a nude poking through the door, and the self-portrait as a boxer, etc. etc.), because Bonnard’s ability to ram a painting so full of light, colour, memory and ideas is loud enough to speak for itself. These are paintings to get lost in, and this show is full of moments that you just won’t want to end.