Bonnard: The Colour of Memory and The Memory of Colour


Pierre Bonnard: ‘Young Women in the Garden’ (1921–3, reworked 1945–6)

Here, from the Tate’s show ‘The Colour of Memory’, is everything you want in a Bonnard. ‘Young Women in the Garden’ (1921–3, reworked 1945–6) centres on his model and lover Renée Monchaty (1900-25), who committed suicide when he (1967-1947) married his long term partner Marthe de Meligny (1869-1942). We have an unusual viewpoint (high up) and treatment of light; use of the table top as a framing device within the image; the less obvious peripheral figures of Marthe and (bottom left) a dog; and the emotional use of intense colour, notably the halo-like yellow added – after Marthe died – as if in reverence for the blonde Renée. That, points to how Bonnard painted from memory, hence the show’s title. The intimacy here has a dash of cruelty as well as empathy: Bonnard kept painting Marthe as if she was perpetually young, but in 1920 she was 49 against Renée’s 20, so the titular ‘young women’, as well as her relegation to the edge, may have been rubbing something in. There are many great paintings and plenty more to stimulate in this account of Bonnard in the 20th century, including a room which makes an utterly unconvincing claim that Bonnard’s work indicates an interest in the machinations of war. As I emerged, it occurred to me that the walls had been differently coloured in different rooms – but I couldn’t recall the sequence. The memory of colour having failed me, I retraced my steps, and can reveal that the paintings are displayed against red,  grey, white and yellow as follows…

Art writer and curator Paul Carey-Kent sees a lot of shows: we asked him to jot down whatever came into his head

About Paul Carey-Kent

Art critic and curator, based near Southampton. I write most regularly for Art Monthly, Frieze, Elephant, State, Photomonitor... and, of course, FAD.