Recently I went to see the Bonnard exhibition at Tate Modern. That’s where I came across ‘slow looking’ for the first time. If you haven’t heard of slow looking or slow art yet, it’s a new trend promoted by art galleries and museums who encourage visitors to slow down and spend more time actually looking at the artworks.
Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory is quite a large exhibition. Well-spaced paintings are supposed to facilitate the ‘slow looking’. There are several benches throughout the gallery and small folding chairs are provided as usual. The rooms were not too crowded and it was possible to look at paintings in detail, which I appreciated.
I think slow art can work, but definitely not when it comes to block-buster exhibitions, where you literally have to queue to see certain paintings, especially the ones considered as the highlights of the exhibition. Bonnard is not as well-known as some of his contemporaries (think Picasso or Matisse), and there is not a single painting in this exhibition that I would consider a must-see. However, there are no ‘lesser’ paintings on display here. Every painting is interesting in its own right and worth contemplating.
As recent research suggests (or confirms what some of us already knew) spending time with art can make you happier. This is particularly true of the Bonnard show in my opinion. Lots of ‘happy colours’ – warm shades of yellow, orange, red and pink mixed together with cooler ones are a joy to look at. Pausing in front of one painting after another (rather than rushing down the gallery in search of photo opportunities) can really make you feel relaxed and calmer. I think we need more of this in our hectic lives.
Pierre Bonnard was born in 1867 in Fontenay-aux-Roses, near Paris. He attended École des Beaux Arts and Académie Julian (where he befriended Vuillard, the founding father of the Nabis). Early in his career aside from painting he also did posters, lithographs and stage designs. The exhibition focuses on artworks Bonnard painted after 1900. In those mature works his interest in colour really shines. His lifelong partner Marthe de Méligny, whom he married in 1925 (after 30 years of informal relationship) often appears in his paintings of interiors.
Colour was very important for Bonnard. While his technique recalls the Impressionists, who were known for creating paintings on the spot to capture the moment, as a Post-Impressionist Bonnard was quite different in his approach. When you learn that some of these paintings were created over the period of several years you begin to realise that these are not painterly equivalents of a snapshot. However, Bonnard was interested in photography and used photographs and sketches as memory aids for his painting compositions.
In his colourful paintings he seems to capture a particular moment, but in reality he plays that moment over and over in his head, transfers it onto his canvas and reworks it until he is happy with the result. The colours in his painting are moving away from naturalistic, human figures often blend with their surroundings. Sometimes you really have to look closely to spot faces in the interior scenes, that’s why slow-looking is particularly helpful here.
A great move on the side of Tate was taking out several paintings out their frames in order to show how the artist displayed them in his studio. It was quite interesting to see how the artist disregarded the need to leave a ‘margins’ for frames.
Tate is not usually heavy on biography in the exhibitions, leaving the images to speak for themselves. A brief mention of Bonnard’s engagement in 1923 to his lover and model Renée Monchaty left me a bit unsatisfied. Why did he break the engagement so suddenly? Bonnard married Marthe de Méligny in 1925. Was it why the rejected lover Monchaty took her own life, or was there more to that?
Despite his several affairs Bonnard was devoted to Méligny, and numerous paintings of her are a testament to their loving relationship. Her death of a heart attack in 1942 was a serious blow to the painter. In his final years the artist increasingly focused on landscape painting. Many of his works were inspired by the time he spent in his villa in Le Cannet, in southern France. Bonnard died in Le Cannet in 1947 at the age of 79.
A small series of black-and-white photographs Bonnard and Méligny took of each other in their garden (in the guise of Adam and Eve) is a nod towards Méligny, who might otherwise be perceived primarily as a passive muse to the artist, while in fact she played a more active role in this artistic relationship. Bonnard’s interior scenes show tender glimpses of their daily lives and cherished memories. His landscapes are full of light and invite the viewers to immerse themselves in colour thinking happy thoughts.
Very enjoyable exhibition, especially when ‘slow looking’.
You can see Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory at Tate Modern 23 Jan – 6 May 2019.
References and further reading:
 Oxford Dictionary of Art & Artists
Here you can read an article about ‘slow art’