Arts: The quiet soul

'Painting isn't a question of sensibility,' said Picasso, disdaining the 'pot-pourri' colours of Pierre Bonnard's work. But the huge Tate retrospect ive will prove we're quite right to go on loving this calm, gentle artist. By Tim Hilton
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The Independent Culture
THE TATE GALLERY'S Pierre Bonnard exhibition is sure to be a success, for everyone loves his painting. But Picasso didn't, for the apparently placid Bonnard irritated the mercurial Spaniard. "Don't talk to me about Bonnard," he once said. "That's not painting, what he does." And Picasso went on to complain that:

He never goes beyond his own sensibility. He doesn't know how to choose. When Bonnard paints a sky, perhaps he first paints it blue, more or less the way it looks. Then he looks a little longer and sees some mauve in it, so he adds a touch or two of mauve, just to hedge. Then he decides that maybe it's a little pink too, so there's no reason not to add some pink. The result is a pot-pourri of indecision. If he looks long enough, he winds up adding a little yellow, instead of making up his mind what colour the sky really ought to be. Painting can't be done that way. Painting isn't a question of sensibility: it's a matter of seizing the power, taking over from nature, not expecting her to supply you with information and good advice ... that's what I hold against Bonnard. I don't want to be moved by him. He's not really a modern painter: he obeys nature; he doesn't transcend it.

A rather wonderful piece of ill-tempered comment! And yet, the criticisms don't stick. The virtues of Bonnard's art are revealed, not his faults. We could counter Picasso's strictures as follows. Of course Bonnard looked at the sky, and at other aspects of nature too. He loved the exercise of sight. If you want to paint your visual experience of the sky, other colours besides blue will enter your eye and your picture. We concede that Bonnard's landscape vision seldom extended beyond the end of his garden. His painting of nature was not the less poetic because of that restriction. Indeed, it was visionary. Bonnard's painting brought the heavens within the grasp of his own home and immediate environs.

The blue, yellow, mauve and pink that Picasso mocked are precisely the colours that he himself could use separately but could not mingle. Bonnard could. There are many reasons for admiring him as a technician. High-key broken colour is a marvel of his palette, and no painter since Bonnard has equalled his effects in this area. Many have tried, but they always end up with vulgarity of colour. Bonnard is never vulgar. As for painting not being a matter of "sensibility" ... we are content that the world contains calmer, more receptive and meditative souls than Picasso's. Bonnard made superb paintings not by "seizing the power" but by some other process. And that process is the heart and the mystery of the Tate exhibition.

Another reason for Picasso's animus may simply have been a matter of different generations and social style. Bonnard was born in 1867. He was a Parisian, so had an inbuilt knowledge of sophisticated life in the capital. Bonnard was pretty well established as part of the avant-garde when Picasso arrived in Paris at the turn of the century. Bonnard in his late twenties was quite the young master, and had a lot of aplomb. We can imagine him as a boulevardier. He wins a prize for designing a poster advertising champagne. He cleverly observes a game of croquet (a new and fashionable sport) in the gardens of his family home. Bonnard is connected with avant-garde theatre and poetry: he contributes to La Revue Blanche, the most elegant literary and artistic magazine of the day; and, as the painting Indolence shows, he had a dramatic talent for sexual art. His first one-man show was in 1896. The influential critic Gustave Geffroy praised his work for its "charmingly malicious individual observation and touch of impudent gaiety".

A bright and successful young man, Bonnard owed much to the liveliness of Parisian culture. He was also indebted to gifted contemporaries. While at art school, he had become part of the group who called themselves "the Nabis", a name taken from the Hebrew word for "prophet". Their slightly distant idol was Gauguin. Other members included Paul Serusier (who had worked with Gauguin at Pont-Aven), Maurice Denis and Edouard Vuillard. They shared a modern symbolist aesthetic and a certain liking for occult mumbo-jumbo, even dressing up in robes. Since they deliberately banded themselves together, we may think of them as one of the thrusting, innovative groups of early modern art. But does their work constitute a movement? Not exactly. They were instinctively of their time, but were not pioneers. In their "intimism" and love of decoration there was a kind of stasis. The Nabis did not confront the wonder and the terror of the modern world. Bonnard and Vuillard are the most domestic of all early 20th-century artists. Little wonder that Picasso - who never lived alone in all his life yet had an internal rage against domesticity - found them wanting.

Today, it is clear that some inner drive toward domesticity led to the triumphs of Bonnard's painting. Something happened to Bonnard around 1900. Nobody quite knows what that something was, but it led him to step aside from the mainstream of developing modern art. We cannot associate him with Fauvism. He took no account whatsoever of Picasso's and Braque's Cubism. His state of mind is difficult to assess. Timothy Hyman's new book Bonnard (Thames & Hudson, pounds 7.95) is a sympathetic account of the painter's life; visitors to the exhibition may find it handier, and certainly cheaper, than the catalogue. About the situation in the first decade of the century Hyman comments that, "like most very precocious young artists, Bonnard and his friends found themselves running aground in their mid- thirties", and he adds that Bonnard "had a different passage ahead". This is true. For the passage was towards a completely self-sufficient maturity. Bonnard created his own realm, an inner world for his painting; henceforward he had scant need for artistic comradeship or new ideas. Any influence on his art would have been an intrusion.

BONNARD HAD one person to help him in his private realm, and she is the golden, intangible subject of much of the exhibition. Sarah Whitfield's crisp catalogue essay brings together what little we know of Maria Boursin. She was two years younger than Bonnard and met him when he was 26. At that period he was a bit of a dandy, and also something of a specialist in painting street scenes. Bonnard picked her up, probably by asking her to pose, though one source puts more emphasis on love at first sight, saying that Bonnard "saw a young woman alight from a Paris tram, followed her to her job (sewing artificial pearls on funeral wreaths) and persuaded her to leave her work, her family and friends, to share his life until she died in 1942". In fact, she had already left her family in her native Bourges and had expunged them from her mind. She called herself Marthe de Meligny. Bonnard did not discover her real name until they eventually married, in 1925, some 30 years after they met.

Marthe was a stray, a slight girl who told Bonnard that she was 16, a story he believed. One supposes that Bonnard approached her because he was a young Parisian who wanted a mistress. As things turned out, however, Marthe awoke in him an unorthodox tenderness. He took her in and sheltered her. None of Bonnard's friends knew what to make of Marthe, because she was so silent. But her presence was always felt. There was brightness in her privacy. She moved like a cat; she flitted. Bonnard soon began his odd practice of asking her to move as he prepared studies for the paintings in which she would be portrayed. When the pictures were brought to their conclusion Marthe is seen as being still. In their gestation, however, she was in some kind of motion. And, as Whitfield points out, Marthe rarely looks out of a picture, or looks at Bonnard. Her head is often bowed, or turned away, seen in profil perdu.

Glorious paintings of Marthe are in the exhibition from start to finish: Marthe in the bath, in the garden, on the balcony, Marthe with her dog, at the window or in the dining room. It seems that Bonnard could not have enough of her. The pictures give you the sense of a curiosity that could never be satisfied. Some people think that the curiosity is really more important than Marthe herself. They argue that the true subject of the paintings is the act of looking, or rather the condition of being observant. Here is a plausible interpretation of Bonnard's painterly character. He did not "seize the power", as Picasso put it, because that would have made his pictures too immediate and iconic. Bonnard wanted to paint the impression that eyesight takes its time, and furthermore, that it slides from a direct gaze at any person or object toward our peripheral vision. So Marthe is often in our peripheral vision, as she enters or leaves a room; or she is in our lower peripheral vision, as Bonnard stands over her when she is in the bath.

Hence the frequent motif of Bonnard himself as the looker, while Marthe so seldom gazes at anything. Hence also the subtle, lovely elisions of space in Bonnard's pictures. All good painters disobey the so-called "laws" of perspective. They create their own perspective for their own purposes. One of Bonnard's aims was to create a sense of time. He was not a classicist, so he did not look for timelessness. His pictorial space is organised so as to give the feeling of a special sort of time. We could call it domestic time, as opposed to time spent in work or in action. It is both ordinary and precious. And it goes without saying that domestic time is a speciality of the French middle class, especially if they live in the country. Let us not be so Protestant as to equate domestic time with idleness. It's something different, a contribution to civilisation; and Bonnard is the poet of this contribution.

He grew to like ordinariness and to dislike Paris. Eventually he bought a simple house, Le Bosquet, outside Cannes. Bonnard was a wealthy man because he inherited money. This hardly affected either his surroundings, his taste or his demeanour. A criticism of Bonnard's art is sometimes made, to the effect that his placid evocation of time means that he wanted the pleasures and certainties of the Third Republic to last for ever. Too severe a judgement, in my view. He just wanted to make perfect paintings in his own way. I do not see him as a bourgeois, and doubt if his neighbours did. There he was, at his art all day, with his tiny, distinctly odd wife always at his side. They took nude photographs of each other in the garden. With his clothes on, Bonnard had more and more a Pooterish look, to use an English expression. Le Bosquet was not a well-equipped home and its owners were notoriously stingy. The French are just as intrigued as the rest of us by the secrets of other people's marriages. So what did the Bonnards' neighbours make of this union if they did not know that both parties, in their different ways, were wedded to art?

NO CREATIVE person leads an entirely idyllic life. Bonnard knew that he had not built a utopia. Le Bosquet was simply the place in which his painting could find its best conditions. In many ways he withdrew from the world. Life none the less sought him out. Marthe could not be happy. The origins of her nervous disorders are not known. We do know that her illnesses were acute, and that her habit of spending several hours every day in the bathroom must have been neurotic. Bonnard had other liaisons. One of them is probably recorded in the voluptuous painting called The Mantelpiece. Another picture of an affair is Young Women in the Garden. Marthe was jealous of Bonnard's paintings of other women. Sometimes she demanded that canvases should be destroyed if it were evident that she were not their subject. Perhaps Marthe knew that she alone would glow in Bonnard's painting when it reached the outside world, and posterity. If so, she was right. The waif he found in a Parisian street was more than a model, more than a wife. She was no goddess, but in picture after picture Bonnard admits that Marthe was wonderfully her own self.

Bonnard cannot have been content with his own self. We may deduce an almost monstrous unease in his self-portraits. In these pictures, by definition, he looked at no one except himself. Why on earth did this reserved person depict himself as a boxer? All the self-portraits are disquieting - and terribly lonely. Whatever their dates, they seem to belong to the existentialist mood of post-war art. Bonnard died in 1949, leaving few remains to tell us about his feelings or convictions. Apart, of course, from his paintings, which will look more tragic to today's viewers than they might have expected.

Bonnard: Tate Gallery, SW1 (0171 887 8000), 12 Feb to 17 May, open daily 10am-6pm. Tickets pounds 7 (concs pounds 4.50; family pounds 19) can be booked in advance (for a fee of pounds 1.60) through First Call (0171 420 0055). The exhibition is sponsored by Ernst & Young.