Luminous legacy

Too often now, the spectacular starchitecture of a new museum overwhelms the art within. How refreshing then that the new showcase devoted to Pierre Bonnard reverses the trend with panache.

Situated in Le Cannet, the hillside town overlooking Cannes that was home to Bonnard for the last quarter-century of his life, the museum is a new addition to a region blessed with A-list vitrines. Ever since Cézanne set about reducing its landscape to “shape, cone, cylinder”, painters flocked southwards to capture the region’s unique cocktail of light and colour. Today, there are museums dedicated to Henri Matisse in Nice and Picasso in Antibes while the studio of Cézanne can be visited in Aix-en-Provence.

This, however, is the first museum anywhere to concentrate on Pierre Bonnard. Museum director Véronique Serrano, a Bonnard specialist and previously curator at the Cantini Museum of modern art in Marseilles, describes it is an opportunity to highlight an artist “known by art-lovers and painters but not by the wider public”.

He may not be a household name like Picasso but Bonnard is no best-kept secret. By the time he settled permanently in Le Cannet in 1922 at the age of 55, he was a well-established artist with auction prices – which have also boomed in recent years – to match Matisse. Yet as more avant-garde tendencies took Parisian galleries by storm, his neo-impressionist style, which brought interiors, nudes and landscapes to life in flickering brushstrokes of vivid colour, found little favour in fashionable art circles. Picasso described his paintings as a “pot-pourri of indecision”.

From 1926 until his death in 1947, Bonnard’s home was Le Bosquet, a modest pink-walled house with a terraced garden and views over the vine-clad slopes to the sea. The cottage was both inspiration and refuge: the painter justified his reclusive existence by the depressive character of his wife Marthe, his model and lover since the early 1890s. Yet he also admitted that his seclusion “gives me time to reflect more deeply on questions regarding my painting”. Of the 300 paintings and gouaches he made in his “charming dovecote”, most interpret its spartan, tall-windowed rooms and the exuberant flora beyond them.

The museum, which is part of France’s state network and run by the municipality, sees itself as a guardian of this period of Bonnard’s career. Comprising 150 works, the permanent collection includes posters, drawings, sculptures, photographs and 15 oils. Although there are some early works – including lithographs and posters from Bonnard’s period with the Nabis group of symbolists at the turn of the century – most were executed at Le Bosquet. The holding was established through a mixture of acquisitions from a €2m fund, long-term loans and donations from patrons including the Meyer Foundation and Isabelle Terrasse, Bonnard’s great-grandniece, who still uses Le Bosquet as a holiday home.

Bonnard’s 1946 ‘Self-Portrait’

Although there are a handful of masterpieces, in particular “Nu du Profil” (1917), which shows Marthe like a gilded sea creature dissolving into an aquatic interior, the preponderance of works on paper means the collection still lacks substance. However, it will only be on display during the winter months, while the summer season will be devoted to temporary loan exhibitions of Bonnard’s work.

The museum’s modest scale allows its contents to shine. Residing in a Belle Epoque villa that has been restored and extended by Vence-based architects Ferrero and Rossi, it comprises just 895 sq m in all. Encompassing a low-slung entrance hall that houses the bookshop, ticket office and educational area and whose roof serves as a magnificent terrace, and a glass tower shaded with steel sun-blinds that contains a staircase and lift, the new architectural additions pick up the crisp, perpendicular rhythms of the villa’s balustrades, windows and columns.

The result is a sympathetic fusion of fin-de-siècle and contemporary styles that gracefully blend into an urban landscape where red-roofed Provençal dwellings and late 20th-century apartment blocks reflect the same temporal arc.

Those latter edifices are the fruit of a growth spurt which saw Le Cannet’s population soar from 4,000, when Bonnard arrived in 1922, to 10 times that figure in 1999. Since then, however, expansion has halted and commercial revenue is in decline. Recognising the pulling power of their favourite son, the municipal council boldly stumped up 60 per cent of the museum’s €4.5m cost (the rest came from the Alpes-Maritime department and Alpes-Provence Côte d’Azur region). It will cost €500,000 a year to run but aims to welcome 40,000 to 50,000 paying visitors a year, a significant influx of tourists for a town always struggling to carve out a separate identity from its more glamorous coastal neighbour. There are also plans to create a public footpath that retraces Bonnard’s walks through his beloved landscape.

The museum could have no finer calling card than its inaugural exhibition. Entitled Bonnard and Le Cannet: In the Mediterranean Light, it gathers more than 70 works – half of which are oil paintings – mainly from his Le Bosquet residency.

The headliner here is “Le Bain” (1925), on loan from Tate, which shows Marthe captured underwater. By then she was 48 but Bonnard, as usual, captures her as an ageless doll – hairless genitals, svelte limbs and transparent, eau-de-nil flesh. The painting is the centrepiece of the section devoted to nudes and interiors in which Marthe appears as little more than an incorporeal contour whose face and limbs dissolve into the background palette of glorious, high-keyed colours.

The newly opened Bonnard Museum in Le Cannet

Art historians often speculate that Bonnard’s painterly treatment of Marthe reflects some underlying misery in their relationship. (Le Bosquet was bought to cocoon the couple from the shock of the suicide the year before of Renée Montchaty, a young model who was also the painter’s lover.) Yet dwell on canvases such as “La Salle à Manger au Cannet” (1932), where her smudged, sunset-hued profile is as weightless as the butter dish in front of her, or “Nu Accroupi” (1938) where her clay-like limbs are moulded out of daubs of blue, lilac, terracotta, and it becomes clear that she is just one more surface in the painter’s increasingly obsessive quest into colour and light.

His voyage culminates in the incandescent tapestries that are his last paintings. This show brings together not only Bonnard’s late interiors, as the Metropolitan in New York did two years ago, but also several of his 1940s landscapes. Seen together, to excellent advantage thanks to the museum’s compact yet luminous galleries, their presence reveals a colourist so masterful he had no need of avant-garde tricks to thrill his audience.

Only Bonnard’s technique of working on several canvases simultaneously for many months at a time, adding a daub here, scumbling another layer there, could produce a painting like “Le Jardin au Cannet” (1942), where a carpet of thickly dabbed colour – rose-pink, plum, ochre, lime, emerald, sea-blue, violet – resolves into the blowsy glory of a Provençal garden melting under a midsummer sky.

Like Matisse, Bonnard often structured a picture around an open window, but increasingly he ruptured that threshold with a flood of jubilant colour. This show would be worth seeing alone for “L’Atelier au Mimosa, Le Cannet” (1939-1946), where the sulphur-yellow hue of the flowers bleeds through the bars into the crimson-gold walls of the studio, so that landscape and interior melt into a single effervescent explosion.

Although the artist André Lhote once described him as “the most abstract painter of our time”, Bonnard never relinquished the object. Drawings on show here testify to his daily habit of making skeletal sketches of his surroundings – trees, rooftops, still lifes – which he later translated on to canvas in his atelier.

Those deliquescent yet defined forms acted as anchors for his chromatic ecstasies. Yet under his painstaking attentions, each figurative element – the garden gate conjured out of myriad greens and darks, the bottle dissolving into radiant dribbles – becomes an informal image in itself. The tension between form, gesture and material gives Bonnard’s late paintings a power absent in many more incontinent abstract expressionist fantasies. They are a triumphant vindication of his belief that: “When you forget everything, there only remains yourself – and that is not enough.”

In an age when neither art nor architecture has ever been more narcissistic, the self-effacing charm of Bonnard and his new home are to be enthusiastically welcomed.

Museums devoted to single artists

Henri Matisse

Musée Matisse, Nice

This grand hilltop museum provides a wide-ranging overview of the painter’s life and work. +33 4 93 81 08 08,

Auguste Rodin

Musée Rodin, Paris

Opened in 1919, two years after the sculptor’s death, the Hôtel Biron hosts “The Thinker” and “The Kiss” as well as less familiar pieces. +33 1 44 18 61 10,

Eugène Delacroix

Musée National Eugène Delacroix, Paris

Located in Delacroix’s former studio and apartment, this museum contains paintings, works on paper, letters and personal effects. +33 1 44 41 86 50,

Gustave Moreau

Musée Gustave Moreau, Paris

Drawings, paintings and sculptures by a leading light of the Symbolist movement. +33 1 48 74 38 50,

Paul Klee

Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern

Since 2005, more than 40 per cent of Klee’s work has been housed in the undulating ZPK building designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano. +41 31 359 01 01,

Vincent Van Gogh

Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

This is the largest holding of the post-Impressionist’s works in the world. +31 20 570 5200,

Joan Miró

Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona

A remarkably comprehensive collection of over 14,000 pieces, many donated by Miró himself. +34 934 439 470,

Edvard Munch

Munch Museet, Oslo

Munch’s legacy to the city of Oslo forms the basis of this collection. +47 23 49 35 00,

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