Albers, Bonnard, Carter: as easy as ABC

Bonnard, Pierre, 1867-1947; Coffee (Le Cafe)

(Pierre Bonnard, Le Café: Tate)

In search of ways to take our minds off the quagmire of Brexit, we head for the Anni Albers exhibition at Tate Modern, just squeezing in before it closes. It was certainly impressive—and important that a woman working in the fields of weaving, textiles and design should be recognised as a significant artist. My difficulties were, firstly, that the lighting, reduced for understandable reasons, made it tricky for me to see some of the materials very clearly; secondly, that the show required a certain level of technical knowledge to appreciate what was actually displayed—knowing a bit about the Bauhaus and more about Black Mountain College didn’t cut the mustard; and, thirdly, lacking the requisite knowledge, chunks of the exhibition seemed rather repetitive. Still, several items, such as the Six Prayers, were astonishing even to the most inexperienced eye.

albers-six-prayers-1965

(Albers: Six Prayers)

To have gone all the way to London, at such expense, only for that might have felt to me a bit, hmm, thin. Luckily, there was, at the same address, an exhibition of paintings, and drawings, and photographs, by Pierre Bonnard. That is to say, light and colour and Marthe, his companion of fifty years, glimpsed, clothed or naked, in the bath, in the kitchen, at the table. She died in January 1942. ‘You can imagine my grief and my solitude’, Bonnard wrote to Henri Matisse, ‘filled with bitterness and worry about the life I may be leading from now on.’ (‘Vous jugez de mon chagrin et de ma solitude pleine d’amertume et d’inquiétude sur la vie que je puis mener encore.’)[1] Julian Barnes, whose essay on the artist is called, not unreasonably, ‘Bonnard: Marthe, Marthe, Marthe, Marthe’, comments that ‘Bonnard’s subject-matter is sometimes so seductive as to be problematic’ and notes that Bonnard’s exteriors, when they occur, retain the qualities of the interiors: ‘Bonnard is the painter of the Great Indoors, even when he’s painting the Great Outdoors’.[2] And those ‘Great Indoors’, of course, are his true domain. Laura Cumming, in a typically acute and discriminating review, remarks that Bonnard ‘turns curiously conventional outdoors’ (https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/jan/26/pierre-bonnard-the-colour-of-memory-review-tate-modern-wife-marthe)
which is perfectly true – but a lot of that outdoors is seen through an open window and here is the bath, the table, the coffee cup, the door or window frame, the curve of hip or breast or shoulder in Southern French light, the essential Bonnard: the sketched, the familiar, the remembered, the known, felt on the skin and the fingertips and the mind’s eye. There’s an extraordinary canvas, The Sunlit Terrace, which was painted over seven years, 1939-1946, right across the span of the Second World War; and some unsettling late self-portraits which radically undercut the idea of Bonnard as a consistently happy or serene painter.

bonnard-nude inaninterior

(Bonnard, Nude in an Interior: National Gallery of Art, Washington)

Back on the 16:30 train, with a valuable reminder, if such were needed, that some people just Can’t Shut Up. Two of them on their phones for miles after mile, talking over and against each other, a twenty-first century duel to set against those of Lermontov, Pushkin, George Canning and Lord Castlereagh. Still, there and back, I sojourned happily enough in the Golden Age of Crime—Margery Allingham and Dorothy Sayers—as opposed to this age of it, the Brass one.

wise-children

(Wise Children, via The Guardian)

Then, on Saturday, to the marvellous Emma Rice adaptation of Angela Carter’s Wise Children at Bristol Old Vic. The Librarian and her sister shaking with laughter beside me; their mother crying with laughter in the seat in front of me. Songs, dancing, spontaneous applause, tears, jokes, a deafening ovation to end with. As someone rarely seized by things theatrical, I was—seized.

And we are back, with a glass of wine to offset cultural overload—but that Other Thing, alas, is still with us.

References

[1] Antoine Terrasse, Bonnard/Matisse: Letters Between Friends, translated by Richard Howard (New York: Abrams, 1992), 101.
[2] Julian Barnes, Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art (London: Jonathan Cape, 2015), 142.

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