The Tate Gallery's first major exhibition of the year opens this week and looks set to draw crowds not seen since the Cezanne extravaganza a year or so ago. The subject of the show is Pierre Bonnard, not quite in the same league, some would say, as the father of modem painting, but a powerful influence on the art of this century none the less.
It is easy to forget that Bonnard was essentially a 20th-century painter. He tends to be remembered for the wonderful early works that are linked with Paris in the 1880s and 1890s; with his friends Vuillard and Vallotton, and the gentle intimism of the Nabis. This certainly was the world from whence he came, but as the Tate's exhibition aims to show it was very much the starting point from which he continued for more than 50 years.
He never lost the intimist touch, even when he moved away from small- scale interiors to work on a bigger scale with the wider world of the French landscape, especially at Le Bosquet, the house near Cannes where he lived for the last 20 years of his life. Common to almost all his work is a sense in which they seem to be intensely personal pictures with a quality of familiar, daily life about them. Offering, in glowing, luminous colours, a glimpse of a private mood or memory.
The Tate's selection of some 100 works demonstrates the extraordinary continuity of a 60-year career. Even the earliest works suggest that the call of abstraction was never very far away, yet behind his shimmering, almost melting, forms there is always a definite and controlling structure laid down by the frames of a door or window, the lines of a bed, or bath, or the edge of a table.
Whether the exhibition will succeed in its stated aim, "to establish Bonnard's authority as one of the great modern masters", remains to be seen, but one has only to look around the rest of the Tate, from the work of Rothko to Bacon to Patrick Heron, to see the part that Bonnard has played in shaping so much of the art of the last 50 years. You may have to queue to get in, but it should be worth the wait.
The Tate Gallery, Millbank, SWI (0171 887 8000) 12 Feb-17 MayReuse content