Art, Books, Dailies, Design, Personal
Leave a comment

Pierre Bonnard, Design Observer, and the slow life

About a week and a half ago, I bravely ventured into the Tate to catch the last Saturday of Pierre Bonnard’s special exhibition. As you can imagine, it was more than a little hectic, but I’m still glad I went to go see it.

Prior to this exhibition (and I suppose even after), I had very little knowledge of the processes of Bonnard’s work, and I don’t think I have ever isolated it from his peers’ contributions. Which is to say that I’ve never really thought of this body of work standing by itself. So, seeing a few rooms-full of them was a treat. Despite the crowds and despite my unintended crash course.

These are all out of order, and I have to say that I have no internal means of locating them within a specific time or period. I have to say that the work is enjoyable, despite that. It was kind of a joyful experience, seeing the careful layering and juxtaposition of colour, which I cannot wrap my head around replicating (which, I assume, added to the joy of seeing these pieces come together so well and fluently).

The title of the exhibition is The Colour of Memory, which obviously points to his acute sense of it, but it also points to the method utilised by Bonnard when creating these images. Rather than paint en plein air, he often made several sketches of the images, to get the composition right, and at times, used a bit of photography. These are stitched together with the imprints of these rooms and landscapes in his memory.

If you can’t already tell from the abundance of the paintings of interiors that have caught my eye enough for me to share them… Well, I love those. Haha. There’s something about choosing to paint something that looks to be ordinary and creating a sort of ceremonial celebration around it. I love that Bonnard chooses to paint stacks of books, plates of food, the quiet stillness of everyday life — in extraordinary bursts of colour.

The inclusion of several animal companions grounds these work in a specific kind of cosy domesticity, where we, as viewers, bear witness to a shared life.

Of course, reading about Bonnard and his personal life left me, as they say, disappointed but not surprised. Blame it on cultural behaviour or accepted norms, but artists — especially those tagged with “genius,” though bafflingly, even those who aren’t particularly gifted — seem to really engage with interpersonal relationships that damage the other in irreparable ways. I think it’s also quite a disservice to these women, Marthe de Méligny (who he married) and Renée Monchaty, who were a large part of his life, to be mentioned in the notes as sort of anecdotes. Even Monchaty’s suicide, which was made out to have been due to his marriage to de Méligny, but was also mentioned very briefly. As if that was that. Understandably, there is little room for wordiness when you’re trying to cover the breadth of someone’s life, but a single sentence seems quite thin, and it just seems sad that even after having quite a life with another person, the ending of yours becomes a little footnote.

Still, I have a fondness for these quiet little rooms, looking inward or outward, and the stillness they carefully capture.

Although it was packed, one of the rooms served as reprieve for me, and I felt a little bit brave, taking out my iPad to sketch. I didn’t plan on doing any quiet sitting to draw (mainly because I had planned — and failed — to go to the last day of the Joan Cornellía show), so I had no other recourse but to go digital. To be quite frank, it was a really nice afternoon.

It’s become my sort of ritual after any visit to the Tate to pass by the ramen place close to it. Any post on the slow life, particularly slow food, feels incomplete without the mention of ramen, in my humble opinion.

And ramen is my ideal slow-cooked dish, I think. I always dream about making my own broth, but it seems like a steep learning curve, and also, I am not going to boil bones for 12 hours just for myself.

It’s not like getting ramen from a restaurant is cheap by any stretch, but I won’t have to spend 12 hours in cooking time and electricity bills for one fresh bowl (or two, if my flatmate Laura fancied one) and leftovers. Anyway, this is my favourite, I think — the classic and reliable tonkotsu — though I am quite liberal with adding some of the chilli and garlic bits, because, you know, it’s not like this isn’t rich enough already.

(I went to the Tate again on Tuesday for the Design Observer talk, and you know I got another bowl. It’s my comfort food; I need to be comforted!)

Speaking of Design Observer, it was quite a treat to see the panel on D.O. + Culture is Not Always Popular, which a book by MIT Press that collects a selection of “fifteen years of Design Observer” along with some of the comments printed in the marginalia, which all five speakers (L-R in photo: Adrian Shaughnessy, Jessica Helfand, Rick Poynor, Alice Twemlow, and Michael fucken Bierut) stressed added to the richness of the design community and the discourse they were having with one another, often with dissenting opinions, but enriching the landscape all the same.

They were talking about a time they called its “heyday,” and during the Q&A, someone from the audience asked about why they were talking about the Design Observer as though it were dead (which, it’s not). And for all the nostalgia from the panel surrounding this project, they stressed that even though it seems like a bulk of these discussions have retreated into the academe, many conversations are still happening in different ways, and expressed differently, and sometimes through different mediums.

It’s hard to keep a richness in conversation going, when there is so much shit people are trying to get your attention for that’s available and accessible and there. The saturation of content makes for a lot of distractions, and this frequency may lead some to believe that there is no market for the long-form or thoughtful writing anymore, but I really appreciated that Rick Poynor insisted that the appetite for learning and listening is still there. That just because these numerous distractions and avenues exist, it doesn’t mean that nobody has the patience for reading anymore. These are just distractions that we need to fight against.

Sometimes it feels like living a slower version of life is just a nicer way of saying “lazy” or “unproductive,” but being thoughtful and present allows for a different, and in some ways, more fulfilling view.