I remember being surprised when I realised that Bonnard had lived through World War Two. In my mind, he had existed in the Paris of an earlier era, when, along with Vuillard, he was one of the leading lights in the school of Post Impressionism known as Les Nabis. But he lived – and continued to paint – until his death in 1947 at the age of 80.
In 1927, Bonnard bought a house in the village of Le Cannet, close to Cannes on the Cote d’Azur, and until the outbreak of the war, when travelling became first difficult and then impossible, he moved between there and his home and studio in Paris. From 1939 onwards, he and his wife Marthe, the subject of many of his paintings, lived solely in Le Cannet, Marthe’s mental and physical health declining until, in 1942, she died, leaving Bonnard bereft. You can see this in the self-portraits he made in those years; see also, I like to think, his awareness of what he had learned of events of the war.
The following poem of mine was written after reading Bonnard at Le Cannet by Michel Terrace, with photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson (Thames & Hudson, 1988). It was first published in Poems for the Beekeeper, edited by Robert Gent (Five Leaves Publications, 1996) and re-published in Bluer Than This (Smith/Doorstop, 1998) and Out of Silence (Smith/Doorstop, 2014).
Bonnard at Le Cannet
Cold here, this room you sit in, 1945;
your corner table, vase of flowers and white cloth,
grey scarf close about your neck.
You sit and smoke, patient for cognac
warm in its glass; a white cup with gold rim,
the small black coffee she will bring.
Again and again sketched in his diary –
Saturday, February 26th; Tuesday the 15th of June –
like an otter she would ease, sleek, into the bath,
snug against the curve of porcelain.
On the radio, news of the Armistice,
a hastily articulated peace, the Jews.
The air is rimed with smoke, far echo of guns.
The small electric heater stands unplugged,
no fire in the gate.
Marthe – why does she not come?
These last mornings you have walked
between the almond and the olive trees,
gazed over red roofs toward the fullness of the sea.
You painted ochres, oranges and browns,
cupboards steeped in jars and bottles,
herbs in bunches, greengages and plums,
golden apples, persimmons.
In the studio the slow shunt of trucks,
smell of paint thick on your hands;
stiff-legged before the mirror
you blow warmth into your fingers.
Head shaved, ready, this is not so difficult,
one portrait, all that’s left.
A gash of colour for the mouth,
those veins, blue, drawn down
across the fabric of the face;
black hollows where the eyes would have been,
burnt out by bodies that lay ripening,
close=pressed between trees, their richness
leaking back into the soil, beyond reach of seeing,
stripped beneath the surface of the sea.
Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory is at Tate Modern from today (23rd January) until 6th May.