LONDON’S BONNARD, April/May 2019
Why do I love London so much? Today especially, I feel I love London the most; and today, it’s crowded and bright and messy, and it feels like it’s so hard for just about anyone to find their feet around this city. Myself included. And yet, I so do love London. I’m rushing along the Thames. My scarf just won’t stay wrapped round my neck, I keep losing half of it to the breeze, it flutters behind me, and this is annoying and repetitive. I hate repetitive.
I’m almost running, since I have a bus to catch; but most importantly – essentially, even – I have an exhibition I need to see first. And I know that once I get to this exhibition, I can lose myself inside a space where light and colour become a more powerful and an altogether different thing than what I can see around me in reality today; or on any other day, for that matter.
It’s Pierre Bonnard, and his Colour of Memory. It’s almost a calling I’ve been feeling ever since I saw an underground ad promoting it.
Museum’s in sight, and off comes my annoying scarf (how come I just didn’t think of taking it off sooner?). I don’t care that the card I was planning on paying with for the ticket gets declined. It’s fine; my overdraft on my other card has always taken me out on cultural splurges. It supports me like that.
I quickly let myself get carried upwards to the third floor, ticket in hand.
As soon as I enter that space which seems too small for all those visitors inside, I can finally catch my breath.
The museum rooms seem obscure, as they more often than not are, but that just brings out the preciousness of Pierre Bonnard’s colours.
I’m not running anymore now, I’m walking mindfully. Feels like I’m going deeper into a painted world, where the interplay between the inside spaces and the outside ones makes me feel free.
A nude is the first painting I come across; it’s the lean upstanding silhouette of a young woman, greeting me contre-jour. She’s right in front of me, seemingly vulnerable, at once exposed and concealed. I become aware of a manly presence tip-toeing behind me – just a visitor, another seer – and I remember that once again, I’ve fallen in love; and that once again it’s much like loving London. I can’t quite find my feet with it, and I don’t know if I ever will. But it feels good, even like this; it’s aliveness.
I walk some more, and come across paintings of women bathing. Some of them make me think of Degas’ ballerinas and I am amazed at how much of the whole wondrous construct that is the body, and its ethereal essence, can be represented by just focusing on fragments; like a pair of long legs, painted as they stretch in underwater languor.
There’s also the openness rendered by playing with basic rules of perspective: surfaces of tables are wide, too big for what they hold, fruit and butter and knives and coffee cups; sometimes books. They all look as if they’re about to fall off, and yet they stand still. Still nature, almost tactile. Tangible, revealing a lot on Bonnard’s way of painting, of how he used to spread his canvas on walls; as if an easel was constraining and simply not enough for the vision which was about to take shape.
People, resting; their painted faces hidden and hiding. It all comes alive, I don’t know how and why, but I assume it is because of the light and its vibrant playfulness: it seems to still be trembling at places on the canvas. Ideal, that’s how this painted world feels like. Bonnard is really trying. Even when it comes to depicting war-zones, he’s embellishing, almost glossing over. The light helps, and so does its generous colour spectrum.
Before I’ve been taken over completely by the ideal, here it is: the self-portrait called The Boxer. I allow myself a moment to ponder. This painting is visceral and intent, it wakes me up; I can see it, the all-underlying anxiety. I know it. And it’s like I’ve been there for every single painted scene: I’ve bathed and looked out at never-ending outsides from behind half-shut doors, lunched on unstable tabletops and refused to paint what I couldn’t accept; and, just like The Boxer, I’ve pressed my left fist onto my chest, many a time, as if trying to push through to the very heart of who I am, and reveal the unseen.
I get out quickly. I know there’s the looming possibility that I won’t catch my bus. And so I run again; I run like I haven’t run in months, and it’s as if Bonnard is running with me.
I catch glimpses of faces as they turn, baffled gazes, doors as they open or close, and tabletops of unfolding abundance. Wide urban spaces, as much as my limited viewpoint can contain. That’s been my perspective as well, for a very long time – snippets, fleeting glimpses of doors half open; and then shut.
What would all this look like, London, seen through Bonnard’s eyes, in a painting by him? I can only imagine. Imagine, as I run faster.
Text and pictures of Pierre Bonnard’s paintings by Thea C. Munteanu (works displayed at Tate Modern, London)