Pierre Bonnard, I just learned, did not paint in front of his motifs. Instead, he filtered the image, finding a way to make annotations (notes, sketches) that were a trigger for recollections that he wanted to capture on canvas in the studio. His paintings were, in other words, salvages and translations of primary sensations – to stand in front of the motif, he argued, was to be in danger of distraction.
What I find immensely interesting is that Bonnard, by this detour via memory, managed to find a way of making increasingly abstract compositions rooted in his own impressions of reality.
Bonnard, says Tate curator Helen O Malley, 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.