The Colour Of Memory

Port examines Pierre Bonnard, one of the finest colourists of the 20th Century, following his newly opened Tate Modern exhibition

For the French Post-Impressionist Pierre Bonnard, colour wasn’t just a way to adorn a picture, it was a means to experience life itself. When he had mixed a new colour that was just right, he would revisit and retouch old work. Once, he persuaded his friend and fellow Symbolist Édouard Vuillard to distract a museum guard whilst he added his latest colour to a hung painting.

The Tate Modern’s newly opened exhibition of Bonnard’s work showcases a radiating spectrum, snapshots of domesticity and the natural world framed in experimental vantage points. Blurred Frenchmen celebrating the end of WWII. Luscious, tangled gardens spied from the kitchen window. Hesitating, stolen reflections in the bathroom mirror. These shimmering scenes are recreated intimately and imaginatively – their idiosyncrasy coming from the fact that Bonnard preferred to work from memory. His dream-like impressions act as snared, remembered moments in time – “giving the impression one has on entering a room: one sees everything and at the same time nothing.”.

Born in 1867, Bonnard was an independent figure whose best work often featured his wife, Marthe de Meligny, who featured in over 385 of his paintings. Travelling extensively though Europe and North Africa at the beginning of the 20th Century, he is credited as a founding member of the Post-Impressionist group Les Nabis, ‘prophets’ or ‘seers’, and counts Henri Matisse as one of his closest friends and passionate advocates.

Port talked to Tate curator Helen O Malley about Bonnard’s individual approach to perspective, colour and temporality.

Pierre Bonnard, Courtesy of André Ostier, 1941

How did painting from memory liberate his subject matter?

Bonnard considered the object “a hindrance” to the painter. He found painting from life restrictive. In his opinion it caused the painter to become overly concerned with replicating the exact proportions or colour of an object. Bonnard preferred to work from memory in the studio and recorded the world around him in his sketchbook. He worked quickly, requiring just a few lines to capture a moving figure or rolling landscape on paper. He drew from these sketches following his return to the studio. They offered a point of departure for his paintings, which were expanded and enriched through memory.

Bonnard’s process of working from memory was key to the success of his paintings. It allowed him the flexibility to experiment with both colour and perspective, adapting his compositions in response to the emotional quality of the depicted scene. Although experience was taken as his starting point, the artist never allowed himself to be limited by his physical surroundings.

How did his artistic process enhance his use of colour? 

Bonnard’s colour choices were guided by what he called “the first emotion”. He used colour as a tool to recreate or respond to the emotional quality of the scene. His unique handing of colour can be seen in paintings such as Boxer, 1931. In this self-portrait, the artist is confronted by his own reflection in the mirror. He is stripped of brush, palette and canvas, which indicates that the moment has been reconstructed rather than recorded. His raised fists suggest a frustration or struggle. The viewer is left to question the cause of his potential anxiety. This painting bears testament to Bonnard’s exquisite ability to use colour to capture his emotional state.

Pierre Bonnard (1867 – 1947), Self Portrait (The Boxer) (Le Boxeur (portrait de l’artiste) 1931, Oil paint on canvas, 540 x 743 mm, Paris, musée d’Orsay, Photo (C) Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt

Why was his use of perspective, vantage point and framing so exciting at the beginning of the 20th Century, and continues to be so?

Once again, his experimental use of perspective, vantage point, and framing was closely linked to his process of working from memory. His experiments with the camera between 1900–1922 also had a significant impact on his painting practice. He took just over 200 photographs, helping Bonnard to move away from the conventional poses of artists’ models to depict figures more realistically. Often blurred and capturing a sense of immediacy, Bonnard’s photographs were used to refine his methods of observation and inspire his images, rather than simply acting as source material to copy directly.

The impact of his experiments with the camera can be seen in works such as Coffee, 1915. The table in this painting takes up the majority of the frame. A woman sits at the table, sipping a cup of coffee. The top of her head has been cropped from view. Similarly, the torso and arm of a second woman, dressed in blue, is seen reaching down towards a glass on the table, and it is unclear whether she is entering or leaving the room. This painting has the feeling of a snap shot, a passing moment captured in time. Bonnard carried this experimental approach to framing and composition throughout his work.

Pierre Bonnard (1867 –1947), Coffee (Le Café) 1915, Oil paint on canvas, 730 x 1064 mm, Tate

How does his work play with temporality?

Bonnard travelled extensively throughout France. He preferred to work on upstretched canvas. Rather than using an easel, he would pin his canvasses directly to the wall. This allowed him to roll up his canvasses and take them with him on his travels. He was often far removed from the original location or subject depicted in his work. As previously mentioned, Bonnard’s works do not simply transcribe what the artist saw. An initial moment of inspiration would be remembered, reflected upon, and reimagined as he composed his paintings in the studio. Rarely satisfied with his first effort, he often worked on each canvas over several months or even years.

One of the most extreme examples of this is Sunlit Terrace, 1939-46 which he painted over the course of the Second World War. The painting spans the passage of the war. The unusual colour palette suggests an alternative state of reality. The elongated canvas casts a sweeping view out into the world. Given the restrictions placed on movement during the war, the painting captures a sense of confinement but also the promise of freedom.

Pierre Bonnard (1867 –1947), Nude in an Interior c. 1935, Oil paint on canvas, 1340 x 692 mm, National Gallery of Art, Washington, USA

What role does the domestic, or intimacy, play in his work?

Bonnard’s relationship with his wife, Marthe de Méligny is at the core of his work. She was his primary muse, featuring in hundreds of his paintings. Bonnard recorded their everyday life together, cooking, reading, bathing. Although Bonnard and de Méligny remained together for over 50 years, their relationship was by no means simple. They went through various ups and downs. Bonnard captures the intimacy and melancholy of their relationship in paintings such as Nude in the bath, 1936. His experimental use of colour, once again, suggests a break with reality. He manages to create a space between what he is looking at and thinking about. It is a memory space, which offers a fascinating, if somewhat ambiguous insight, into the joy and strain at the heart of their complex relationship.

Pierre Bonnard (1867 –1947), Dining Room in the Country 1913, Oil on canvas, 1645 x 2057 mm, Minneapolis Institute of Art

Does he have any recurring symbols?

Bonnard is best known for his depictions of domestic life; however, his subject matter is significantly more diverse. Exhibitions of his work are regularly organised thematically e.g. figurative works, still lives, etc. are grouped together. We’ve made the decision to adopt a chronological hang for The CC Land Exhibition: Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory. This allows us to reveal the overlooked areas of his activities – from the city scenes and panoramic landscapes he painted during his frequent travels across France, to his practice of working simultaneously on different paintings side by side, and his response to the crises of both the First and Second World War. Presenting the works in the order in which they were made, generates new questions, allowing for a richer understanding of Bonnard’s life and practice.

The CC Land Exhibition: Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory exhibition runs at the Tate Modern until the 6th May 2019

The Clock

Christian Marclay’s cinematic meditation on temporality and mortality continues to entrance audiences at Tate Modern

Christian Marclay’s The Clock is as hypnotising as a pendulum swinging back and forth. Mesmerising international audiences since 2010, the 24-hour video installation ingeniously cuts together over 100 years of cinema into a seamless vignette montage. Minute by minute the exact time is shown on screen – a flash of a wristwatch, Big Ben striking, the neon glow of an alarm clock – perfectly in sync with the real, local time of wherever it is screening.

Transitioning between and fusing literally hundreds of wildly different films results in a staggering production marvel, with disparate clips weaved together through deft visual and sonic editing tricks. It is not uncommon for people to wander in, sit down and become completely absorbed, ironically oblivious to the fact that hours have passed. It revels in the melodramatic and magnifies the banal, highlighting both the tedium of waiting and our obsession with time measurement and management. Simultaneously channeling our modern preoccupation with short-form content, it also harks back to the golden age of endurance cinema triple-bills, distorting and warping our attention spans and expectations as a viewer. We are naturally geared towards chronology and narrative resolution – but the latter never comes in The Clock. Instead, time moves swiftly on with irreverent urgency, indifferent to our desires and fears. The genius of Marclay’s work is that he has taken fragments of dramatic artifice and exposed a number of truths about how we live our lives and the precious, limited time we have.

Having travelled the world extensively the installation has now come back to London, the place of its birth, and is being showcased for the first time at Tate Modern. Port spoke to Fiontan Moran, Assistant Curator, about its addictive quality and powerful, flitting frames.

Why do you think The Clock has become such a sensation around the world? 

Everyone can relate to a number of the scenarios in The Clock, from rushing for work, waiting for a job interview, trying to catch a train or just relaxing. It makes us aware of how our time is constructed and the poetic moments that can be found in the everyday. But also conveys the collective memory formed around film and television.

A large part of the appeal is that within the space of a few minutes, visitors see a wide range of scene, actors and emotions that are often very familiar but which are placed in a new context. While installing the piece and often seeing the same sections of film, we noticed that part of the appeal also comes from the delicate way Marclay edits all the scenes together.

What role does the banal and boredom play in the piece?

The Clock makes you aware of the everyday things that people do, which are not usually the main focus of a film. By seeing this I think viewers maybe reconsider how time is spent and can perhaps read more meaning into such moments.

How does the physical set up at the Blavatnik – sofas lined up, aping a cinema – change the viewers experience to say, standing in an art gallery?

Christian Marclay has set out that the installation should feature sofas that are spaced apart. This means that the setting is more comfortable and people can arrive and leave without disturbing other visitors like you might do in a traditional cinema. The setting also creates a sense of community where you become more conscious of how long people choose to stay in the installation.

The Clock 2010. Courtesy of White Cube, London and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

What is the tension between cohesion and contrast, both visually and aurally?

The sound is very important to the success of the video. Marclay wasn’t interested in just fading out the soundtrack of one scene as it changed to another. Instead he worked closely with the sound designer Quentin Chiappetta to construct how the music might bleed from one clip to another, which sometimes creates an interesting contrast between what is seen and what is heard.

Do you have a favourite clip, or moment?

It’s impossible to choose a favourite clip as there are so many. Often the ones that seem to resonate are those that remind me of films that I watched when I was younger such as Hook or Desperately Seeking Susan.

Photography Matt Greenwood

What does it have to say about the social media attention span of the 21st Century, or its content e.g Youtube, Vines?

Although the vast variety of clips in The Clock can be compared to how many people view multiple screens at the same time, the emphasis on time passing means that you are forced to focus on the singular act of time passing and how it is represented in cinema and tv.

Do you think it provides any form of resolution? Does it need to?

Christian has said that there is no official beginning or end to the piece, just like a clock. Instead I think the only resolution – if you want to use that term – is a greater awareness of the multitude of activities that might be taking place across the world within the space of a few minutes, and inevitably a sense of mortality.

The Clock is being shown at the Blavatnik Building, Tate Modern, until the 20th January 2019

Check out our favourite desk and wall clocks here

Margaret Howell’s Tate Edit

Five objects from the fashion designer’s collection for the Tate Edit shop

The clothes of Margaret Howell are striking in their straightforward simplicity. Never too reliant on ornament, the emphasis lies on cut, shape and composure. Typically, the clean lines of a blazer or a trench coat might be tempered by the billow of a loose shirt or the offhand addition of lace-up shoes, and her products slip seamlessly into other worlds of design and art. It is fitting, then, that Howell has been invited to curate the Tate Edit shop at Tate Modern. Beginning this month and running to September, visitors to the iconic Bankside gallery will have the chance to browse Howell’s favourite design objects and homeware, as well as selected pieces by her own hand. Each item has something of her timeless, understated aesthetic yet is nothing if not utilitarian. 

The Tate Edit series has been inviting artists and designers to select a unique series of limited edition products. For Howell, the Tate Modern is the perfect location, with its sleek conversion of the former power station into a temple to modernity, not only by housing the works of its makers, but through its own stark architectural presence. Howell describes Tate Edit, a small space by the museum’s riverside entrance, as “pared-down, calm, reflective… a gem of minimalism perfect place to display a selection of my favourite design”. 

Here Port presents five specially chosen objects from the collection.

Yellow Anglepoise Lamp – Margaret Howell


Stacking Glasses – Toyo Sasaki


Cornish Indigo Smock – Margaret Howell


Green Vase – Fresco


Stool – ercol