Art: Chez Bonnard: the home that shaped the master

Late in life, the painter Pierre Bonnard bought a modest two-storey house on the Cote d'Azur. There he was to paint some of the most moving pictures of the century. On the eve of a major Bonnard show at the Tate Gallery, Andrew Graham-Dixon visits the Villa du Bosquet, almost unaltered, and alive with traces of the great works. Photographs by David Gamble
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On 27 January 1926, Pierre Bonnard paid 50,000 francs for a house in the village of Le Cannet, on the Cote d'Azur, and the purchase was duly set down in the notarial records of the time: "A property planted with orange trees, containing a two-storey house and two reservoirs fed by the water of the Canal de la Sciagne, situated in the Avenue Victoria." The modest dwelling was somewhat grandiloquently named the Villa du Bosquet. It was here that the artist whom Henri Matisse once described as "the greatest of us all" chose to pass much of the rest of his life. He was 60 years old.

Bonnard's neighbours were, in the main, retired members of the professional classes: bank managers and lawyers and tax inspectors and their wives, come to the South of France in order to decline, as slowly as possible, under cloudless skies. Bonnard, an anarchist in his youth, successfully disguised himself as just another petit-bourgeois. A year before he moved to Le Cannet, he had finally married his lover and model of more than 30 years, Marthe de Meligny. Now he tended his garden and cultivated a vaguely Chaplinesque pencil moustache which, together with his slight and stoop-shouldered frame, gave him a reserved and melancholy air. Henri Cartier-Bresson took a picture of him at around this time. Bonnard, who has a lapdog on his knee, looks like a civil servant put out to grass. Contrary to appearances he was not en retraite, and although he was indeed sometimes melancholy he was still vigorous. Between 1925 and 1947, when he died, Bonnard would paint almost 300 paintings of his life with Marthe in Le Cannet. They include some of the most piercing, glorious and, on occasion, unbearably sad pictures of this century.

The house in which Bonnard created L'Atelier aux Mimosas, the celebrated series of nudes,and his final self-portraits has now become a place of pilgrimage. For two generations, his heirs have preserved it as a kind of shrine. The present keeper of the flame at the Villa du Bosquet is Michel Terrasse. He is Bonnard's great-nephew and together with his father, Claude Terrasse - now deceased - he was originally responsible for saving the house from the attention of thieves and property developers. It lay empty for 20 years following Bonnard's death, while members of the family and their lawyers argued over the inheritance. The garden grew choked with weeds, the doors and windows of the house were smashed and one or two pieces of furniture, notably the painter's plain iron bedstead, were stolen. But because Bonnard and his wife had chosen to live in relatively spartan fashion, it was not too difficult to restore the house to something very much like its original condition.

According to Monsieur Terrasse, only a few changes of any significance have been made since 1968, when he and his father first took possession of the house. A new red tablecloth has been bought to replace Bonnard's original, which was eaten by moths. The diamond-patterned linoleum in the south-facing bathroom on the first floor has had to be changed for tiles ("but the pattern is of exactly the same size and colour"). The Piranesi print of ruined Roman antiquities which once was simply pinned to the wall in Bonnard's bedroom has now been framed; and a new bedstead has been bought to replace the stolen one - although the replacement has shiny brass knobs on it, a departure from the Franciscan simplicity of Bonnard's own bedstead which Monsieur Terrasse now deeply regrets.

Otherwise, he is, it is clear, intensely proud of the house, which he recently succeeded in getting listed as an important historical monument. "If Bonnard were to come back to Cannes," he says, "he would not recognise the train station, which has been put underground; he would not recognise the Boulevard Carnot up to Le Cannet because it is lined with apartment blocks; he would not recognise Le Cannet because most of the old houses with their orange-tiled roofs have been pulled down. But..." and here he pauses and suddenly smiles an enormous childish smile, "just imagine the surprise he would feel, this wonderful man, this great artist, when he saw that he could still climb the stairs up into his garden and find his house exactly as he left it."

Monsieur Terrasse wears a formal shirt and loosely knotted bow-tie and chain-smokes unfiltered Gauloises from a gold and green enamel cigarette holder. He speaks a mellifluent and splendidly rhetorical French and his passion for Bonnard is matched, it would seem, only by his scorn for art critics with elaborate pet theories about the meanings of his pictures. In conversation, he often quotes his great-uncle Pierre's remark, apropos pet theories in general: "C'est bon d'enfourcher un dada, mais ne pas croire que ce soit Pegase" - which may roughly be translated as: "Feel free to get up on your hobby horse, but don't mistake it for Pegasus." His own hobby horse is the importance of preserving the Villa du Bosquet. Although none of Bonnard's pictures hangs there, the house, half a century after his death, still contains traces of him and some lessons about the nature of his art.

Monsieur Terrasse remembers visiting Bonnard at the house when he was 14 years old and his great-uncle was nearly 80. Each morning, the painter performed the same ritual: "Before breakfast, he would drink a very large glass of cold water. Then he would go for a walk. He would take the path up behind the house to the little canal, the Canal de la Sciagne, and walk along it. Il faisait provision de la vie - he was stocking up on life. I had the privilege of walking with him sometimes... He would walk slowly, with a certain kind of lazy attention, because he didn't want to miss anything that might present itself to him. One morning, we were walking along the canal, with this wonderful view of Le Cannet, with Cannes below and far away, in the blue distance, the mountains of L'Estorel. We came to an olive grove and he stopped and said to me, 'Look, Michel, look at those trees. I must have seen them a thousand times and they never said a thing to me. But last night it rained and they are shining with a brilliance I have never seen before.' He took a little piece of paper out of his pocket and he made a sketch, and later he painted a picture from it. That was how he worked. He painted nature always from memory, after his walks."

Goats no longer wander through olive groves above the house, as they did in Bonnard's day. There are no olive groves left either. Much, indeed, has changed in Le Cannet since the war. What was once a village, high above Cannes and separated from it by an expanse of open country, is now merely part of the urban sprawl of the Cote d'Azur. Almost every exploitable inch of the hillside on which Le Cannet stood has been developed. The old village church, Sainte Philomene, still stands but it is kept locked and the Vatican recently declared that Sainte Philomene has been struck off the list of official saints - a desanctification which seems somehow appropriate to Le Cannet as a whole. Most of the old houses, not just along the Boulevard Carnot but throughout the whole area, have been knocked down to make way for immeubles - apartment blocks - or for millionaires' villas with swimming pools in their grounds. The scent of mimosa, jasmine, orange blossom and pine has been replaced by the acrid smell of chlorine. The Canal de la Sciagne, along which he used to walk each morning into the village which is no longer a village, is now just a great black pipe carrying water along a narrow service road running between high evergreen hedges grown to preserve the privacy of each precious plot of land. The Villa du Bosquet is not only a memorial to a dead man but a dead place: a Riviera through which people walked rather than drove.

Bonnard's only addition to the house was a small, cramped, split-level, north-facing studio. He once told an interviewer that too well-appointed or beautiful a studio, like that of his friend Matisse in Vence, would have "intimidated" him. It was in this plain room that he made some of the most affecting colour inventions in the history of French painting. Here he set to work on the memories he had gathered - the epiphanies, so to speak, for which he went fishing on the canal each morning. He pinned his canvases to the wall and worked on them unstretched. The pinholes are still there in the raw plaster. "I like always to work on a piece of unstretched canvas larger than the final image," he said. "This gives me room for alteration... For each landscape, you need a particular ratio of sky to land, of water to foliage, and it is not always possible to judge the dose right from the start." Bonnard would tinker with his paintings constantly, sometimes continuing to alter them for a decade or more. He once persuaded his friend Vuillard to distract one of the guards in a museum while he touched up a work of his that he had not seen in years.

Monsieur Terrasse remembers Bonnard telling him that it was important always to respect nature, but "just as important to respect painting". The artist had a strong consciousness of the necessary artifice of art. He was deeply suspicious of the banality of mere representation and he had a horror of painting devant le motif. What he sought to paint was not nature seen objectively - an impossibility, he rightly discerned - but nature seen through the filter of his own most intense feelings. He referred to his subject as "the first emotion". Many of the most striking devices of his art - his tremendous heightenings of colour, or his fish-eye perspectives, offering so much broader a view than the human eye can take in at glance - were designed to capture this emotion. If he painted in front of the thing itself, he said, he would inevitably begin to make a visual copy of it and then "the initial seduction" would be lost.

One of the few paintings which he could, in practical terms, have painted before the motif in his studio, is the great Atelier aux Mimosas - since the studio and the view through its window were on this occasion his subject. But, in fact, Bonnard waited until the mimosas were no longer blooming outside his window before setting to work. The sunburst of yellow blossom in his picture was not an observation, but a recreation of experience, an analogue for the beauty and radiance that he had felt rather than an attempted duplication of a bunch of flowers - a distinction vital to any understanding of what Bonnard was about. "Many small lies to create a great truth" was another of his laconic formulae for painting. His studio still bears mute witness to this philosophy and its translation into practice. He tried out certain combinations of colours by painting them directly on to the plaster wall of the room - experiments in tone and colour and contrast which have been left, by Monsieur Terrasse, to form a kind of abstract frieze. These many small and urgent marks are literal reminders of the extent to which Bonnard's art was invented, indoors, after memory. The colours had to look right in the studio, no matter how much such rightness might depart from the actual colours of reality. An Impressionist would have made such essais de couleur outside, from nature; but Bonnard did not make colour notes outside, sketching only in pencil. As he said of the Impressionists, "Art is not nature... There was a lot more to be got out of colour."

Landscape was by no means Bonnard's only preoccupation during the last years of his life. He painted many interiors of the house, too, in most of which his wife Marthe appears. Monsieur Terrasse has made a provisional numerical breakdown of Bonnard's oeuvre during his time at Le Cannet. Leaving his gouaches aside, he painted 102 pictures of the surrounding landscape and the garden; 59 paintings of the dining room; one painting of the kitchen; one painting of the staircase; 21 paintings of the small sitting room; 11 paintings of the studio; one painting of the spare bedroom; 15 paintings of the bathroom; and six paintings of his own bedroom. If his landscapes depict Bonnard's raptures before nature, his interiors represent his meditations on the world of man - a world of more infinite pleasures and pains, which provoked in him a more complicated range of feelings and moved him to the creation of his most complicated and ambiguous works.

Because the house survives, we can, in the case of many of Bonnard's interiors, compare what the artist painted with how he painted it. "Every door, every window, every table, every element of every radiator, every electric switch in the house, the bath, the taps, the bidet, the mirrors - everything in the house, you will find in Bonnard's paintings," says Monsieur Terrasse. For him, it seems almost as if the house has thus been blessed, like the ground upon which a saint once walked.

The experience of visiting the house is certainly uncanny, like suddenly being in a place only previously dreamed of. It is a double-edged experience, both like and unlike the experience of looking at a Bonnard. On the one hand, the Villa du Bosquet proves how far the artist departed from the facts in order to express his feelings about his life. In the case of what remain, perhaps, the most celebrated of his pictures - those of Marthe lying in the bath - to see the bathroom itself is only to realise the magnitude and the incandescence of Bonnard's transfiguration of it. But on the other hand, the survival of the Villa du Bosquet proves how absolutely precise the artist was, even in his fuzziest pictorial representations of memory. To compare a picture (say) of the downstairs sitting room with the room itself is to see that the blob one had assumed was just a blob is indeed placed at exactly the same point as a light switch; to see that this patch of apparently playful scumble actually contains the memory of a peeling damp patch on the wall; to see that that wavering line previously taken for a piece of pure pictorial architecture is, in fact, descriptive, and that what it describes is the cheap and somewhat wonky plastic channel devised by a less than first-rate electrician to cover up some internal wiring done for Bonnard in the room some time in the 1920s.

Bonnard changed the architecture of the house in small but significant ways. He deliberately opened it up, knocking down internal walls and building French windows to the outside, both upstairs and down. In nearly every room, when the doors are open, there are views into at least one or more other rooms. His pictures, throughout his life, disclosed a fascination for just such complex spaces, for interiors at the margins of which one finds reflections or views into other interiors or the outdoors. A half- open door might reveal a little tantalising glimpse of another room, in which someone - often Marthe - might be loitering; a mirror at the edge of the frame might suddenly throw a piece of sky or foliage indoors from without. Bonnard's domestic epiphanies - if it is fair to call them that, for they are less frequently ecstatic than the landscape memories he chose to paint - often seem to have been prompted by his sudden awareness of something else, or someone else suddenly moving at the edge of his field of vision. This was perhaps the domestic equivalent of that moment he shared with Michel Terrasse by the olive trees - a moment when the world would take him by surprise, when something would strike him and stick in his mind and demand its due in a painting. His little house feels like a machine designed to engineer precisely this kind of surprise, or sudden visual arrival - a capsule for self-enchantment.

He was also very fond of cupboards, which he built all over the house, despite having few possessions to put in them. He seems to have liked their promise of sudden disclosure. He painted several pictures in celebration of the red cupboard in the dining room, in particular, taking an almost religious pleasure in its appearance, full of provender, its doors open like the wings of an altarpiece.

Towards the end of his life, Bonnard set down a rare confessional remark in his diary (most of which consists of spare but precise notations of weather and sky conditions, as neutral as the shipping forecast). He wrote: "One does not always sing out of happiness." His old age was by no means uniformly tranquil. Marthe seems to have been frequently ill, and there are suggestions that she suffered increasingly from some form of paranoia, for which Bonnard himself may well have felt a certain degree of guilt. If so, it was not the only guilt from which he suffered. A couple of years before he had finally married her and moved to Le Cannet, the painter had fallen violently in love with one of his other models, a girl in her early twenties called Renee Monchaty. He went as far as proposing to Renee before realising that he could not, in the end, bring himself to leave Marthe. Renee killed herself when he broke the news to her. "He always felt terrible remorse for the death of that young girl," says Monsieur Terrasse. "He did not talk about it in public. But he often talked to my father about it. It was a scar that never healed." Marthe may never quite have recovered from this particular trauma either. Michel Terrasse remembers her for her folie de persecution, her refusal to entertain, or even to go out of the house without a parasol to hide her face.

Many of Bonnard's later paintings are shot through with a powerful sense of morbidity. The self-portraits he painted after catching sight of himself in the various mirrors in the house - the mirror in the bathroom or the mirror in his bedroom, still lit from above by a single accusatory light bulb - are almost appallingly raw. They are the frankest statement of unhappiness in his oeuvre. In one picture, the so-called Le Boxeur, Bonnard seems to rail at himself: a tragi-comical, pigeon-chested pugilist, he has painted himself with a red and raw face, as if he had been flayed, like a life-class ecorche. In another, he has painted himself slumped, with terrible black slits where his eyes should be, like a Noh mask.

But Bonnard's truest last testament remains the series of paintings that he made of Marthe in the bathroom during their last years together. There is immense sadness in these pictures, mitigated by a defiant joy - an emotion never absent for long in his art. The actual bathroom at the Villa du Bosquet - Bonnard's sole concession to creature comforts, it was built at Marthe's insistence - is completely banal, a sunny little room with tiles on the floor, a bath on cast-iron tiger's feet and a bidet. Bonnard made it into a palace of love and memory, a glittering mausoleum where an ending can still seem like a beginning. The last of the pictures is the Nu dans la Baignoire now owned by the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. Marthe lies in the bath like a corpse, a mummy in a sarcophagus or some drowned Ophelia, in a room which seems to contain all the light and colour of the universe. Bonnard finished the painting in 1946. Four years earlier, Marthe had died and he had marked his diary with a simple pencil cross, adding - as always - his observations on the weather: "Fine. Mistral." One year later, he was dead and the house was empty.

Bonnard, sponsored by Ernst and Young, is at the Tate Gallery in London from 12 February to 17 May, daily 10am to 5.40pm. Admission pounds 7 (family ticket, pounds 19). Advance bookings: First Call on 0171-420 0055.

For information on Le Cannet area, contact France Information on 0891 244 123 (calls 50p/min.) British Midland operates two daily flights to Nice. Flights from pounds 159 return. Reservations: 0345 554554. Hertz offers unlimited mileage car hire in Nice at pounds 100 for four days. For details, telephone 0990 906090. 'Omnibus: Pierre Bonnard - a Private View' is on BBC1 on Sunday, 15 February.

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