In Focus: How Pierre Bonnard used photography to help him paint pictures that would once have been near-impossible

The mysterious French artist Pierre Bonnard is the focus of a new exhibition at Tate Modern. Lilias Wigan went along.

The reclusive Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) was more aware of the world around him than one might think. As well as displaying his better-known landscapes and portraits of his wife, Marthe de Méligny, Tate Modern’s current retrospective – Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory, running until May 6 – attempts to reveal the extent to which he was politically and historically aware.

Still, despite the drama of such powerful pictures as A Village in Ruins near Ham (1917), which depicts the devastation following the Battle of the Somme, the paintings that stand out most poignantly in this exhibition are the intimate images of his life with Marthe. Unconventionally, it was only after 30 years of living together that they married in 1925. We are offered a private glimpse into their domestic world through the artist’s multiple portraits.

One unfolding aspect of Bonnard’s painting is how photography informed his compositions. Although the 200 or so amateur photographs he took during his lifetime is a modest number in comparison to that of contemporaries such as Edouard Vuillard, who left behind over 2,000 photographs, it is thanks to these images that he was able to depict Marthe in situations seemingly so natural and unposed. Life models would struggle to hold such incidental positions for the time it would take an artist to translate them.

At the time, photography was evolving and had only just begun to influence Modern art—not to everybody’s approval: in his Salon of 1859, Charles Baudelaire dismissed the medium as ‘the refuge for bad artists’. The production of the first Pocket Kodak camera in 1895 had stimulated a host of amateur photographers such as Bonnard – who had his own 1896 version of the same Kodak model – to experiment with photography as an art form in its own right.

Pierre Bonnard photographed in 1941. ©André Ostier / via Tate Modern

Pierre Bonnard photographed in 1941. ©André Ostier / via Tate Modern

Nude Crouching in the Tub (1918), which hangs beside the monochrome snapshot Marthe in the Tub (1908-10), is one of many paintings in the exhibition that shows how the painter used the camera to convey a private moment.

Marthe suffered from illness throughout her life and hydrotherapy provided relief. Bonnard shares with us an insider’s view of her remedial routine.

We watch from above as she goes about her ablutions, deeply focused, her head cast down—unaware, it seems, of any spectator.

The compositional cropping of the tub emphasises the proximity of artist and subject; Bonnard’s affection for his wife is tangible. There’s a dreamlike quality to the painting that disguises Marthe’s ailments. Her ritual is idealized, transformed into something sensual as well as melancholy.

So skilful did Bonnard become at rendering the delicacy of a moment in paint that, after 1920, he gave up photography and turned to drawing, replacing his Pocket Kodak with a pocket sketchbook.

However, his tender portraits of Marthe are indebted to his camera, which allowed him to explore intimate compositions that otherwise he would never have conceived.

Tate Modern’s Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory, runs until May 6, 2019 ; tickets £18, free for members –  www.tate.org.uk