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Pierre Bonnard: "The Colour of Memory" Review - Tate Modern

23 January – 6 May 2019

Standard ticket £18

Concessions £17

Tate Collective £5


The Tate Modern's Pierre Bonnard exhibition is a hazy memoriam of summer childhoods in spectacular colour; bold jewel tones, seas of colour and faded neutrals emerge the viewer in an escapist wonderland from the entrance to the exhibition until the very end.

Pierre Bonnard was a French Les Nabis painter that pushed the boundaries of what it meant to be an "impressionist" in a world of post-impressionism. His work with structure and his manipulation of space and time, pulls together an altogether new view of the world. His focus is often on the simpler aspects of life, illustrating women in baths, kitchens and gardens. He likes to play on the idea of the unique, using colour to highlight how even the smallest aspects of life can be extraordinary and continually changing.

Pierre Bonnard, Stairs in the Artist's Garden, 1942-4. National Gallery of Art (Washington, USA)

The first few rooms of this exhibition are an electric red, which juxtaposes and compliments the yellow tones in Bonnard’s works. Ultimately, these colours send the audience right back to childhood, where the primary colours are the first introduction to art. The kaleidoscopic nature of these rooms throws you into a whirlpool of memories. His earliest works can be found in these rooms, representing his own Bohemian lifestyle in the early twentieth century. The most eloquent depiction of this bohemia is in Man and Woman. It is one of his works that uses less bright colours, but the browns and reds create a comforting warmth. The two figures are both nude; a man stands on one side getting dressed, and a woman sits on the bed playing with two kittens. It radiates sexual comfort, cosiness, and just relaxation more generally. It is not just the content of the scene that does this though, more strikingly it is the cloudy effect his technique gives the painting. The "out of focus" form of his work produces a visual that is not dissimilar to our own recall memories; they can be pictured but often not in exact clarity.

It is Bonnard’s naturalism that is most alluring for its chromatism. Le Jardin has an immersive story-book essence. The structure of the path situates the audience at the very centre of a jungle-esque woodland, and the leaning of the foliage surrounding it almost encapsulates that path, so you feel as though you are looking through a tunnel of colour. The piece is overwhelmed by the warm yellows and reds that represent a (sort of) summer exploration. While the blue in the background, demonstrating the path that leads off, has a more mysterious quality about it; although the foliage is blurred in Bonnard’s characteristic style, the colours make everything clear, whereas the darkness of the background keeps the audience guessing. You are instantly re-united with youthful curiosity.

Pierre Bonnard, Le Jardin 1936, Musée d'Art moderne de la Ville de Paris (Paris, France)

However, the most significant piece in the collection is Summer painted in 1917, in which Bonnard blends the human characters of the painting into the natural backdrop. The bright greens and yellows fill our senses with distilled happiness, and two nude figures sit lovingly together, blending into the orange tones so easily you would not see them without close inspection. A reminder of human intimacy with nature. Whereas, the muted blues that wash out the trees and children in the foreground suggest a melancholia that lingers in the air, symbolic of the war that was ongoing at the time. The piece is both structurally blended, while also being an emotional dichotomy - perhaps this is what is so remarkable about all of Bonnard’s work.

Bonnard worked from memory and that is evident from the nebulous effect he uses in his works. This effect also captures an audience’s memories and leaves room to invoke their own experiences in. It revives memories that you thought were long gone and situates you, not as a consumer, but as an experiencer; you find yourself in the centre of a nostalgic psychedelic, flooded with dream-like childhood memories. For that very reason, this might just be the best exhibition at the Tate Modern right now.

Edited by Evangeline Stanford

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