Pierre Bonnard

Bonnard at the Tate Gallery: The wings of a butterfly

This exhibition shows Bonnard as a painter wholly in touch with the twentieth century and examines the relationship of his work to his wife and model, Marthe

According to arcane principles of chaos theory, the smallest beating of a butterfly’s wings on one side of the world can change the weather thousands of miles away. The final words in Bonnard’s journal of 1946, the year of his death, read, “I should like to present myself to the young painters of the year 2000 with the wings of a butterfly.”

Bonnard was intensely preoccupied with the weather—both inside and outside his head. His journals—cryptic pages more often dotted with “beau” or “nuageux” than the self-revelation of his final entry—are obsessive about it. In this major show at the Tate Gallery, which takes its place with others in recent years (MoMA in 1964, the Royal Academy in 1966, the Pompidou Centre in 1986, the Hayward in 1994) Bonnard’s last wishes are generously granted. The “beating of his wings” is palpable in the wide range of work—much of it from private collections. But what is more important is that the weather for future generations of young painters will change when they see this show, which stays true to its declared purpose: to demonstrate that Bonnard is a twentieth-century artist.

Curator Sarah Whitfield, who organised this exhibition in collaboration with John Elderfield of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, explains “It is time for Bonnard to be seen as a major twentieth-century painter, which has not been achieved in any of the previous exhibitions.” This is not a new idea, she stresses, “but if you choose carefully, he comes across as a complex and difficult painter—not the end of the nineteenth century painter of domestic scenes he’s generally seen as.”

Why is it important to reconsider Bonnard now? “Perhaps his painting has slightly gone out of fashion”, says Ms Whitfield. “But seeing Bonnard now, at the end of the century could make painting come out of its sleep.”

In this exhibition, Bonnard’s work appears more abstract than ever before. A still-life such as “Corner of a table” (about 1935) or “Basket of fruit reflected in a mirror” (1944-45) foreshadows the imminent arrival of colour field painting. Rothko and Diebenkorn have their artistic roots in the nuanced optical ambiguities of the French painter. “Open window” (1921) plays a similar game. The viewer’s gaze flies out of the open window into the opalescent sky, but the grid of the window, and the florid space beneath it (is it a radiator, is it wallpaper, or is it an abstract pattern?) hauls the gaze back into the room. There is nothing delicate or equivocal about these pictures. The painter Miquel Barcelónome remarked: “What is perverse in Bonnard is the blend of happiness . . . with a sort of decomposition, a sort of overdose.”

But it is the many paintings of Marthe de Méligny that make this show so compelling. Born Maria Boursin, Marthe re-invented herself for her future husband, who only discovered her real identity upon their marriage in 1925. Bonnard was a prosperous, well-educated law student turned painter when they met in 1893, and there is a sad aspect to Marthe’s transformation from working class girl to bonne bourgeoise.

When the aged Monet was dying at Giverny the only painter he was willing to see was Bonnard, and it is as if the image of Marthe in her bath for almost fifty years (she never ages in these nudes) is to Bonnard what Monet’s water garden was to him for almost as long.

Perhaps it is Bonnard’s declared admiration of Monet (and thus the nineteenth century) that has so confounded critics of his work, and linked him to a tradition that seems to take scant notice of the avant-garde experimentation of peers such as Picasso, who was famously rude about Bonnard, calling his work a “potpourri of indecision.”

Yet there is a certain freedom for an artist in a kind of self-limitation of subject matter, and it is in Bonnard’s relationship with Marthe—this complex, tubercular, hypochondriacal, misanthropic woman—where his work flies “like a butterfly.” It is as if he is searching out the nature of their bond in these pictures, and this leaves these paintings wide open to interpretation. Marthe’s ongoing illness possibly imprisoned him with pity, as some critics would have it. Perhaps he colluded in their private rituals of painting and bathing for his own personal and artistic ends. We will never know. Bonnard never spoke about it.

Much has been made of this search by psychologists, writers and art historians. Sarah Whitfield points to a letter which has recently come to light, written by Bonnard to a friend in 1939 while the couple were renting a villa in Arcachon, a famous spa town. It is the only one where he talks candidly about the failing state of his wife’s health and makes it clear that she could not tolerate social contact.

Whether Marthe suffered from an obsessive-compulsive disorder that made it necessary for her to bathe constantly, or whether the image of her in her watery catafalque transfixed his eye, it is these great paintings in the final room that give us the encoded weather report—“beau” and “nuageux”—on this most private of painters and his muse.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 79 March 1998