Paintings by these three artists are well known to me from images in books, but I still have a such a strong urge to see the actual works that I am willing to spend considerable time, money and energy to get myself to London from Cornwall. Even an English breakfast that is so lukewarm and disappointing that I tell an American in my hotel lift that I feel I should go around the dining room apologising for it hasn’t dampened my joy at the prospect of first hand encounters with the pictures.
The Bonnard evokes the south of France so powerfully that I can smell the mimosa, taste the cake and want to rush down to the sea. He’s a rare artist whose pictures of his bathing wife seem suffused with love, not exploiting a woman’s body to leering glances.
There’s old black and white footage of him holding his little dachshund, looking sensitive and slight.
How did those colours in those proportions come to his mind, vibrating like cicadas through the afternoon?
I want him to be as wonderful as his art and wish I didn’t know he was unfaithful to his wife and his mistress killed herself. After all who knows the circumstances? I share those lingering moments of joy he depicted.
With Van Gogh and Munch I also know quite a lot about their lives.
Vincent portrays the heavy, solid grief of a woman so strongly, and the wild, hot landscapes with twisted tree trunks and brush strokes that make a dance all over the surface. Everyone viewing the picture wants a moment to be in the centre of the Starry Starry Night, to take their own photo of it, a hot glittering night of passion, of beauty, despite a lonely life, an unsuccessful career, a brother who although he was an art dealer couldn’t sell his work.
Munch is even more tragic, a claustrophobic space, very dark, the pictures and prints on a scale so much more impressive than on a page. I keep seeing people with white tragic faces, identifying with Munch. When I come out there’s a man slumped on a seat looking so sad and full of grief as if exhausted by it all
In each case the artist has balanced the subjects and the content with the form so exactly that I can’t separate them.
The gift shops are a light relief, a bridge back to the everyday life outside. I buy a knitted dachshund to make myself feel more like Bonnard, who my art teacher at school sincerely told me painted like me. I avoid a Vincent key ring, insufficiently like him, or a Munch Scream pendant, too gruesome to wear.
Yes, it was worth the effort. Yes, art IS an experience that enriches my life and a sustenance through sorrow.
Bonnard, Van Gogh and Munch, all exhibited in London, April 2019 at Tate Modern, Tate Britain and The British Museum respectively.
The C.C Land exhibition, Pierre Bonnard, the colour of memory 23 January – 6 May 2019, Tate Modern
Edvard Munch, Love and Angst, 11 April – 21 July 2019, British Museum
The Ey exhibition Van Gogh and Britain, Tate Britain until 11 August 2019
Volume 33 no 6 July/August 2019 p33