Emerging from the Tate Gallery drenched in Bonnard sunlight, an after-image of yellow, violet and peach has indelibly imprinted itself on my brain. Sated from a feast of colour, amazed in a theatre of looking, revolving slowly in a golden globe, a fourth dimension catapults one’s vision straight into Bonnard’s world. From the quotidian experience of a quietly shared morning breakfast, to leap and launch out into a world so impossibly verdant and glowing it feels hallucinatory.
These spaces draw the viewer close, whisper intimately through their veils of colour. We stand at the shoulder of Marthe as she pours milk into a jug. We meet the gaze of the suddenly appearing cat across the room. We disturb the thoughts again of Marthe in her sunlit bath. We walk quietly, catching sight of the curtain sifting light softly through the room. Everything is held, suspended for a moment, calling to mind Virginia Woolf’s ‘drop that forms at the end of the day…round, many-coloured’. As a painter, I am hooked on Bonnard’s brush marks and even his fingerprints that trace the heart, mind and eye working in bonded unison. In a rare self-portrait of 1938, the artist paints his hand clasped over his heart, caught as a painter in his treacherous pursuit of joy and beauty, yet not unaware of the bombs that fall near to where he works.
Each new room explodes on the retina as a fresh arena of pleasurable looking. All I want to do is get closer. In the room curated cleverly with frameless paintings, one has the sense that here perhaps one might actually walk clear through the looking glass, whisper something in the ear of someone and share breath with the inhabitants.
The Large interior ‘The Dining Room, Vernon’ (1925) is such a work. In the gallery I become aware that one HAS to walk across the work, appreciating the peripheral vision of the artist so that Woolf’s cat filching a piece of fish is not missed. And yet for all this invitation into a sensual spaciousness, one is held on the surface like a bee in honey. Behind the figures caught almost classically in their domestic routine, there is an area of painting that is so abstractly beautiful in its rectilinear geometry and veils of found and conjured unnameable colours that it brings Rothko to mind. Again, in a series of later seascapes ‘Seashore Red Field’ (1939), there is another such painting that with its bands of textured colours approaches abstraction. And so these cleverly invented compositions belie their perceived casualness, to dissolve close up into layers of smudged, stippled, scratched and smeared paint and colour. Every mark has a purpose. Bonnard came close to pursuing life as a lawyer and perhaps his love of the fact, the detail and the invention of the picture as a problem or a puzzle, evidence this. Patrick Heron noted that every painter has recognizable elements that become integral to his or her language. For Bonnard it was a net of squares drawn across his vision. Patchwork squares echo across the gallery. Here, evoking more literally a chequered table cloth of the breakfast table or afternoon coffee, or lunch on the verandah, there the dappled textures of the houses lit up on the hillsides surrounding Vernonnet.
Bonnard like Woolf refuses to pin down a reality, choosing rather to immerse us in a sense of flux, a shifting experience manifested in colour and light. He vexes many a viewer with his playful and somewhat casual figures in interiors that are quite as magical as they are prosaic. In the third room, where the frames of the paintings have been removed, the viewer is brought closer to the painter’s practice. One can see the edges of his compositions as he painted them on his unstretched canvases pinned up on his studio wall. On returning to view the room a second time I was struck by a far more radical discovery: these paintings aren’t meant to be viewed by a static viewer. As one walks across the work, the radical nature of his vision becomes apparent, as it takes in both the peripheral and the panoramic. Reaching the edge of the actual painting, one’s imagination is encouraged to continue unfolding the composition way beyond the edge. Indeed, a frame around the painting would confine the viewer’s perception.
Sometimes, as with ‘The Violet Fence’ (1923), Bonnard offers us a leap-off point for our visions and our thoughts. We collect ourselves at the fence, its striations of sumptuous violet greys on the flat surface, before he propels us into the alluring greenery, light and space of the view beyond.
Such a complete sense of space is also offered in the unfurling monumentality of ‘Landscape at le Cannet’ (1928). Here, after one’s eye has taken a dazzling sweep across mountains, valleys studded with houses, and impossibly blue sea, one discovers the painter himself reclining in the foreground. Only after Bonnard has walked (even flown) one across the landscape, led one into an adventure of looking, dropping through layers of space, does his reclining figure emerge as if from a fourth dimension.
The figures, people and animals in Bonnard’s paintings appear not unlike the magical moment when the dancing figure first steps out of the screen in the 3D ‘Pina the movie’. These are Picasso-like figures, harlequins, shapeshifters, guiding us into a reverie in nature, or into the possibility of an imaginatively transformed view of our quotidian lives. A glimpse of heaven, a chink left open, to glimpse something completely otherworldly.