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Colour Of Memory

In the 30 seconds it took to get from the Post Office to the car, I was transported to our summer house. It was just before five and still light, but it was not the light, which was lovely in itself, it was the smell the meerest hint of warmth in the air that ignited the memory of joy of summer. I read once that the sense of smell is closely linked to memory. At the beginning of  February, this is most welcome. I had hoped to be similarly transported to balmy, endless days in the South of France by the exhibition Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory at the Tate.

If there is one thing all Selvedge readers have in common is a passion for colour and texture and this show had it in spades.  It is a large show with almost one hundred painting sketches and photographs. What interested me, however, were the five paintings that had been taken off their stretchers and pinned to the wall as if a tableau of Bonnard’s studio in 1925. Here the canvases regained the qualities of cloth and this is how Bonnard painted with the canvas pinned directly onto the wall. I wondered if this accounted for the sometimes strange, sometimes awkward but always beguiling compositions he loved.

These paintings offer an intimate tour of his domestic situation;  the dining room, the garden glimpsed through a window and the bathroom- almost all feature Marthe, whom he married in 1925 after cohabiting for thirty years. I am intrigued by Marthe and her enigmatic presence in almost all of his domestic scenes, in every room, never connecting with the viewer - turned away looking down, in and out of the bath.   

These images were not painted from life but rather work on and fretted over in his studio from photographs and sketches and most of all from memory. Like a perfumer skillfully blends scent, he mixes yellow and mauve and agonizes over white to perfect the touch of water in a lukewarm bath, He dabs and strokes and washed the colour until we are immersed in the intense familiar claustrophobic atmosphere of a fifty-year relationship.

On reflection, theses painting will stay with me. Like a warm bath, a real treat, but a little uncomfortable if you look too long. 

The C C Land Exhibition, Pierre Bonnard: The Colour Of Memory runs at the Tate Modern, until 6 May 2019.

Blog post by Polly Leonard.



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  • Elizabeth on

    Oh I wish I could visit, I saw a show of his in Washinton DC at the Phillips Collection years ago. He is my favorite painter, has been for decades. I wept in front of the bath paintings, they were evanescent. Go if you can, I will be there in spirit.


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