“I should like to arrive in front of the young painters of the year 2000 on the wings of a butterfly,” Bonnard wrote in 1946, months before his death. And so he has: in Tate Modern’s visually ravishing and psychologically riveting Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory, the UK’s first important exhibition devoted to the artist in the 21st century, he soars before us, delicate, beautiful, light of touch, tremulous, fascinatingly hard to pin down.

That elusiveness is a double challenge, concerning both Bonnard’s confused position in art history and his magnificently fluttering images, always on the verge of dissolving into abstract shimmers and beguiling spatial puzzles.

Is this artist who made the modest red-and-white tabletop his early battleground (“Coffee”, “The Checkered Tablecloth”) and reinvented the bather of antiquity in portraits of his wife corpse-like and submerged in the tub (“Nude in the Bath”, “The Bath”) a late-flowering intimiste, concluding the celebration of bourgeois French domesticity begun by Chardin, or a death-obsessed claustrophobic? Bonnard once defined himself as “the last of the Impressionists”, but he painted from memory not life. With hindsight, we see him rather as pioneer of mid-20th-century energetic, all-over surfaces, while his fluttering restless images sympathetically herald postmodern ambivalence and disintegration.

Pierre Bonnard - Nude in front a mirror 1931
‘Nude at the Mirror’ (1931) © Musée d’Art Moderne/Roger Viollet

“Nude at the Mirror” features a woman facing the glass who sees not herself but a rhythmic play of objects — bowl of peaches, small table, rippling lace curtain — which Bonnard delineates more precisely in reflection than in the flickering surfaces implying their actual forms.

Huge flat planes of brick pavilions in the rose-blue “The Sunlit Terrace” dwarf the vista below in dazzling distortion. The eye bounces into a game of hide-and-seek among half-hidden figures in the monumental pastoral “Summer”. And how are we to read “Nude at her Bath”, where mosaic floor tiles merge with a pile of discarded clothes in overlapping swaths of colour and pattern, tactility vanishing into luminous mass?

'Nude in an Interior' (c1935)
'Nude in an Interior' (c1935) © National Gallery of Art, Washington

From start to finish, this show gloriously slows your gaze, as superimposed layers of paint blur outlines of motifs into brilliant tapestries of mottled hues. The Naples yellow of Bonnard’s sitting room is infused with gold, grey wainscots turn violet, light radiates colour, colour is built from light. Again and again, interior/exterior views — “Dining Room in the Country”, “The Open Window, Yellow Wall”, “The Open French Window, Vernon”, “The Door Opening on to the Garden” — blend, refract, play off one another.

In the Guggenheim’s key “Large Dining Room overlooking the Garden” (1934-35), a high-backed chair behind the table meets the window’s wooden casement to create the illusion of an easel, with the Mediterranean garden framed as if a painting within a painting. The lavenders, blues and deep greens outside surge into the room, vibrating across the tablecloth. Shards of unprimed canvas and thinly painted passages imply an inner light; a spectral figure on the right, merging with a vase of flowers, is balanced by a gleaming vertical yellow patch opposite: it is unclear whether the slender tips of leaves drooping from the painting’s top edge are in or outside the room.

'Large Dining Room overlooking the Garden' (1934–35)
'Large Dining Room overlooking the Garden' (1934–35) © Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York

Material and immaterial, reality and imagination, interiority of sensation versus exteriority of the image, are held in balance here as elements slip in and out of focus like the workings of memory.

Tate’s title nails remembrance as Bonnard’s essential theme and, in contrast to recent Paris retrospectives (2006, 2015), this presentation is the most biographical ever staged. The opening juxtaposes two painfully frank, arresting works: the Musée d’Orsay’s famous “Man and Woman” (1900) — a lamplit scene of postcoital disillusion, bleak as anything in Sickert or Freud, where a dark screen divides the naked lovers, she seated on the bed with one leg awkwardly bent, he a shadowy silhouette at the picture’s edge, trying to leave — and the lesser-known, privately owned, shining “Young Women in the Garden”, begun in 1921, concluded in 1946.

Pierre Bonnard (1867 – 1947)
Nude in the Bath (Nu dans le bain) 1936-8
Oil paint on canvas
930 x 1470 mm
Musée d'Art moderne de la Ville de Paris/ Roger-Viollet
‘Nude in the Bath’ (1936) © Musée d’Art Moderne/Roger Viollet

The first couple are, of course, Bonnard and his bad-tempered, sickly but irreplaceable muse Marthe, a seamstress whom the usually shy painter followed from a tram stop one day in 1893 and lived with until her death in 1942. The second pair are dark-haired Marthe again, now a cropped, intrusive presence at the corner, banished behind the claw-like arc of a chair, and smiling young blonde Renée Monchaty, who became Bonnard’s lover in 1918. (Renée is the blank-faced, statuesque model for “The Bowl of Milk” (c1919), a frozen interior giving uneasily on to a sunlit Mediterranean view.)

In 1925 Bonnard proposed marriage to Renée, Marthe protested, and he reluctantly married her instead. Weeks later Renée committed suicide, and Bonnard abandoned “Young Women in the Garden”. He completed it in the last year of his own life, turning the background a radiant saffron, suffusing Renée in a late summer glow.

Pierre Bonnard in his studio at Le Cannet in 1941
Pierre Bonnard in his studio at Le Cannet in 1941 © Andre Ostier

Marthe won in life, but in this final adjustment Renée triumphs; this work belongs with the elegiac, luxuriant yellow-dominated pieces — “Steps in the Artist’s Garden”, “The Studio with Mimosa” — which the widowed Bonnard created defiantly against the privations of the second world war and, as shown in a series of frail, hollow-eyed self-portraits, in the face of his own decline.

Broadly chronological and including documentary photographs throughout, Tate’s show follows Bonnard straightforwardly. Near-symbolist renderings of taut young Marthe — “Mirror Above a Washstand”, “Nude against the Light’ (both 1908, a year after Picasso invented cubism) — are succeeded by the opening out into colour as form in depictions of the couple’s homes in Normandy during the first world war and 1920s Le Cannet, and then by late landscapes reduced to horizontal bands in intense hues (“Stormy Sky over Cannes”, “Gulf of St Tropez”).

Pierre Bonnard (1867 – 1947)
The Garden (Le Jardin) 1936
Oil paint on canvas
1270 x 1000 mm
Musée d'Art moderne de la Ville de Paris/ Roger-Viollet
‘The Garden’ (1936) © Musée d’Art Moderne/Roger Viollet

Outstanding is a gallery devoted to the tragic year 1925: Marthe in her tomblike bath, rigidly hostile to a fragmented, pyjama-ed Bonnard entering from left; the disquieting “The White Tablecloth”, where an ethereal figure trails off in an indistinct field of light and plates and compotier seem to slide off the surface; Tate’s masterpiece “The Table”, with Marthe out of reach behind ceramics, cutlery, bowls of nuts and fruit.

‘The White Tablecoth’ (1925) © Medienzentrum Wuppertal

Every dish and basket on this table is a self-contained ellipse, its separation from the others emphasised by a subtle ring of paint, achieved by the same brushstrokes delineating the iridescent white cloth, so that each form has an aura — the mundane haloed. The white table is surely metaphor for the blank canvas, the generous contents layered on it tell of paint’s capacity for creation, transformation, sustenance. “One always talks of surrendering to nature,” Bonnard warned, “but there is also such a thing as surrendering to the picture.”

Sponsored by CC Land. To May 6, tate.org.uk

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