While the artworks, costumes, artefacts or exhibition pieces are rightfully the centre of attention in any show staged by the NGV, a lot of thought is always put into the exhibition space itself. There’s the mirrored room where you feel engulfed by clouds at French Impressionism in 2021; the heaven and hell room at the recent Alexander McQueen show; and a room painted an intense, vivid red to match the communist flag for the Picasso blockbuster. And for the gallery’s Melbourne Winter Masterpieces exhibition, the scenography itself – the walls, floors, lighting and digital displays – can also be considered works of art.

The NGV has commissioned Iranian-French designer and architect India Mahdavi – one of the most respected and influential figures in her field – to create an environment that’ll match the iridescent palette, domestic scenes and quiet intimacy of more than 100 works by post-impressionist painter Pierre Bonnard.

Titled Pierre Bonnard: Designed by India Mahdavi, it’ll be a collision of colour, texture, prints and landscapes. Many of the backdrops are inspired by or taken from Bonnard’s paintings themselves, transporting viewers into the houses and sceneries he brought to life with his brushes.

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The gallery’s team has already begun unveiling and installing the artworks, setting them against Mahdavi’s immersive scenography.

“It’s a really exciting moment, seeing the paintings finally here ‘in the flesh’,” senior curator of international exhibition projects Dr Miranda Wallace tells Broadsheet. “Pierre Bonnard’s paintings are simply beautiful, and when seen within the sophisticated palette and pattern of India Mahdavi’s exhibition design, they are freed to become even more joyous. The colours of Bonnard’s paintings sing in this contemporary space.”

Among them are Coffee (La Cafe) and Corner of a Table (Coin de Table) set against a butter yellow background with abstract flowers, and Dining Room at Le Cannet (La Salle a Manger au Cannet) installed along a vibrant wall of greens and reds.

Bonnard was known for his use of bold colour, and was a prominent figure as the popular style transitioned from impressionism to modernism. He was a contemporary of Henri Matisse, who called him “a great painter, for today and definitely also for the future”.

The exhibition has been curated in partnership with the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, home to the world’s largest collection of Bonnard’s work, and includes loans from other museums, galleries and private collections. They’re being exhibited alongside Bonnard’s La Sieste from the NGV’s own collection, plus Marthe Bonnard With a Dog (a portrait of Bonnard’s wife) by his friend and contemporary Édouard Vuillard.

“Bonnard is a central figure in the development of abstraction within painting, but he always retains recognisable motifs – often the same spaces of his home, the daily life he shared with his partner Marthe de Méligny, and familiar landscapes,” Wallace says. “Within this limited range of motifs, he let his experimentation with paint and colour take over.”

But it’s not just paintings on display: the exhibition includes Bonnard’s drawings, prints, photographs and decorative objects, shown alongside works by other artists of the time like Maurice Denis and Félix Vallotton plus films by the Lumiere brothers, who helped pioneer early cinema in the late 19th century.

“Seeing the exhibition take shape, I am reminded how fascinating Bonnard’s life was. He was such a crucial figure in the 1890s Parisian cultural scene, crossing between art and music and theatre,” Wallace adds.

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Pierre Bonnard: Designed by India Mahdavi runs from June 9 to October 8, 2023. India Mahdavi will also be speaking at the NGV on June 10. Admission fees apply.


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