Head down to Southwark tube station and the shallow smattering of seasonal snowflakes that were gently swirling earthwards yesterday and coating the streets with their chilly white auguries of future frostiness have all melted away. But the biting wind remains, the sky is a duller shade of gray and even subsumed under my beanie hat and several layers of clumpy woolen vestments, I’m still feeling a bit iced up. No matter – I increase the length of my stride, accelerate the pace of my perambulations and engage in an exercise of self-mesmerising psychological subterfuge that allows my feet to continue on their autopilot path towards the megalithic façade of the Tate Modern gallery while my mind is transported back to a warm sticky seat at that greasiest of greasy spoons, the Parma Café in Kennington sometimes in the mid-1970s. Here I can indulge myself in a plate of beans on toast, a pair of freshly poached eggs and a chipped mug of sweet sugary tea. And then as I scan my way through the small plasticated dessert menu items trying to decide on whether to settle for the sponge pudding and custard or test out the zuppa inglese, I find I have arrived at my destination and with a sufficient release of endorphins that a smile is forcing its way onto my face and I can feel myself about to launch into that song about raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens.
Fortunately, however, today there is a better ways to continue fuelling this mood of self-generated inner warmth, and I don’t mean searching out one of the Tate many cafés and scarfing down a couple of large chocolate muffins. No, rather than enjoying the cosy calorific sugar-rush certainty of munching my way through some cakey confections, I direct myself instead to the new Tate blockbuster exhibition of paintings by Pierre Bonnard which, I feel fairly sure, will offer up a similarly satisfying visual treat equivalent to that provided by a whole variety menu full of comfort food favourites.
Yes, more than just about any other artist I can think of, Bonnard’s paintings provide a succession of happy snapshots scenes of misty, sugar-coated memories of a kind of mythical French life-style that I think probably still lingers in the minds of many as the ultimate in dream destinations. For the scenes and settings evoked by the artist as he peered through the rose-tinted lenses of his slightly blurry spectacles, although very closely based on his own domestic situations, lie outside any precise temporal or spatial coordinates and represent a more idealized and pleasant version of the world as he saw it. And what Bonnard managed to do during the course of his very long and successful lifetime was to fuse his own personal experiences into a sort of timeless, generalised fuzzy evocation of the bourgeois good life that one imagines might have existed in those years between the two Worlds Wars, just over the rainbow and down some country lane among the sleepy provincial backwaters of a wonderful mythical continental Shangri-La la land.
It’s the kind of a place where a freshly laundered gingham tablecloths provides the backdrop to pretty ceramic bowl of fruit nestling next to plate of cheese and an open bottle of wine. Where the bright floral-patterned wallpaper of the conservatory comes up against simple white lines of the sash-window frames that then opens onto a pathway through to the splendourous summer blooms of a thriving garden of earthly delights. And where a door accidentally opens to reveal the shimmering form of a loved one combing her hair or drying her back after an afternoon bathing her body in a pool of rose petals and Chanel scented bubbles.
In short, it’s a kind of idyllic antique Sunday supplement world of gardens and interiors, a world lost in time where there are no televisions or computer screens; no traffic or pollution; no offices or factories; no tax returns or overdrafts; no confrontations or conflicts, no politics or prejudices; no strife or stress; no angst or weltschmerz; no poverty or illness; and no awkward narratives or uncomfortable moral tales to spoil the situation. And if that sounds great, it looks pretty good too especially when it’s been cropped and coloured to perfection. But isn’t there a risk that walking under a never-ending canopy of bright blue sky dallying amongst the Edenic garden pathways might make one eventually yearn to meet a snake or bite into some kind of an apple? Well, I guess that it might and I suppose that it’s this unremitting unworldly sense of honeyed good fortune that starts to grate with Bonnard’s detractors who might argue that the point of art is not just to make pretty decorative distractions but to show the world with all its warts and other many blemishes. And there’s certainly an argument that can be made that says that the works of artists who display more manic, damaged or distorted versions of reality and humanity like, say, Van Gogh, Munch, Giacometti or Francis Bacon, are not just more faithful to the realities of life as most people find them but that they also carry a power and profundity that is simply beyond the reach of Bonnard.
I confess that I’m torn between the two arguments which I suppose could be summarised by the position of Henri Matisse, on the one hand, who famously said that he wanted his art to be a soothing calming influence of the mind rather like a good armchair – and that of Marcel Duchamp who denounced what he sneeringly referred to as mere ‘retinal art’ and insisted that artists shouldn’t just try to titillate the eyes of the beholder but try to engage in a more directly cerebral dialogue. I think it’s fair to say that the Duchampian position is probably in the ascendant today, and has been for a good few years, certainly amongst the profession critical classes who favour the Conceptualistic artefacts and exhibitions that encourages the production of the analytical writing and intellectual debatings that keep them all so gainfully employed. And perhaps it’s understandable to be cynical of an ornamental art that distracts and mollifies when one is reminded that it was, in fact, being produced not just during the quiescence of the peaceful inter-war years but also during the course of the dreadful conflicts, at the very same time that soldiers were being blown apart in muddy trenches and when bombs were actually raining down on cities full of innocent civilians.
Then again, maybe there is something stubbornly heroic about trying to shine an optimistic light and showing the potential possibilities of a brighter future for humanity when all about is falling into chaos and destruction beckons? And I kind of think that there’s just as much skill required in painting convincing versions of a golden age of reverie as there is in offering dystopian versions of the drab alternatives. To his credit Bonnard successfully managed to find a way of offering happiness and hope in a way that avoided earlier traditional methods whether via the soppy sentimentality that was the stock in trade of so many of the fin de siècle artists that had preceded him or the absurdities of all those plump pink allegorical figures that Renoir and others relied upon when presenting their own versions of the possibilities of potential paradisical arcadian futures.
As for Bonnard’s stylistic approach, well, I guess that could be categorized as a sort of form of Post-Post-Impressionism with the colours heightened but still toned down from the excesses of Gaugin and Matisse and the forms more structured than either. Although at this juncture I feel the need to point out that the snaps I’ve used to illustrate this particular blog seem to have turned out not quite true to the original paintings. Some ingenious piece of in-built technical wizardry on the part of the designers who programmed the algorithmic computer code that controls the camera function on my mobile phone seem to have ensured that the contrasts between adjoining areas of colour have been sharpened to emphasise their differences. And so, in much the same way as my camera also seems to have a default setting that automatically removes the wrinkles and blemishes from any portraits taken of self or others, the geeky aesthetic arbiters who determine such matters have unilaterally decided that the astigmatism of the Bonnardian blur that so beautifully moulds his compositions into a unified whole, and is such an essential characteristic aspect of the artist’s style should, presumably for the sake of some misplaced idea of literal clarity, be corrected away.
The answer, of course, is to go along to the Tate and see the actual paintings for yourself. I think you’d have to be a bit of a curmudgeon not to exit the show in a happier frame of mind and with all thoughts of beans on toast banished for at least a good couple of hours.