Ripe for the picking

20th February 1998 at 00:00
Michael Clarke enjoys the radiant art of Pierre Bonnard

The paintings of Pierre Bonnard are among the most immediately seductive in 20th century art, especially those from the three decades or so up to his death in 1947. Saturated with vibrant colour, they so closely match our fantasies of Mediterranean abundance that they have been described as a bourgeois Eden.

Sunlit interiors, eternally youthful nudes, ripe fruits and flower-filled gardens are the recurrent themes of Bonnard's mature work. The transition from his earlier, deeply shadowed, almost claustrophobic world to such a radiantly expansive vision is only one intriguing aspect of the exhibition at the Tate Gallery. Another is how a very private, even reclusive, artist could show so many intimately tender experiences.

In his youth, Bonnard was greatly interested in the applied arts. Although this work is not included in this exhibition, the predominantly decorative character of the paintings in the first gallery could provide a starting point for any number of surface design projects.

The figures and objects in the 1891 "Intimacy" are so compressed into an evenly-toned arrangement of flat patterns and textures that it is only after a while that it becomes possible to identify them all. "The Croquet Game" of the following year might well be mistaken for a tapestry.

It was at this time of growing recognition that Bonnard met Marthe de Meligny, his life-long companion, model and muse. At first, she is suggestively half-concealed in the dark shadows of lamp-lit rooms undressing or naked on a bed. Later she moves into a well-lit bathroom and finally into the bath itself, submerged in coloured light as much as translucent water.

Bringing together so many of these admired paintings with the largest number of self-portraits ever shown is certain to attract attention. But the most persistent theme, perhaps, in Bonnard's career is the relationship between interior and exterior spaces (physical and psychological) seen through windows and doors. The excellent information pack for teachers is particularly enlightening and helpful here.

However closely Bonnard observed his subjects in his rapidly executed drawings, he chose to paint from memory. Typically, he brings more breadth and depth of vision within the frame of his compositions than is usually possible at any one moment, as he does in the 1928 "Cafe au petit poucet".

Only with the use of wide-angled lens have photographers been able to match the scope of Bonnard's all-embracing realisations. In the 1932 "White Interior", a mirror reflects what is behind the artist-viewer while a French window shows what is far ahead. Both, however, appear like pictures within the picture and are unified through similarities of colour, tone and texture with the arched back of Marthe and the floor of the room.

Techniques like these can be difficult to understand but they are made much more intelligible by the suggestion that students follow Bonnard's example by combining on-the-spot drawn records of scenes and events with recollected impressions in the assembling of a composition. They might also find that drawing successive views of a room from a fixed position could help them realise for themselves the way in which Bonnard's spaces embrace the viewer.

For teachers considering a group visit there is an open evening on March 2 when they can pick up the free information pack. They might also like to attend the study day on March 14 when Bonnard's representations of women and domestic spaces will be the focus of attention. "Bonnard Inside Out" on March 23 or 24 offers A-level students or their equivalent the opportunity to explore a wider range of figures within rooms. Nicholas Watkins's Bonnard: Light and Colour (Tate Gallery Pounds 8.95) provides a concise introduction to Bonnard's work.

Bonnard, Tate Gallery, London, until May 17 (0171 887 8765)

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