Winter is nearly over, but the NGV is only halfway through its Melbourne Winter Masterpieces exhibition, Pierre Bonnard: Designed by India Mahdavi.
This year the gallery tapped renowned chef Annie Smithers of Trentham restaurant Du Femier to create an immersive French bistro-inspired menu to accompany the exhibition, which explores the life and work of the post-impressionist French painter. The menu has changed once since the show opened in June and will change again on August 29 before the exhibition closes (and Smithers’s collaboration ends) on October 8.
Lunch is available daily and dinner from 6pm Fridays at the NGV Garden Restaurant, and diners can choose between à la carte offerings or opt for the “Annie’s Favourites” two- or three-course menu, or the vegan two- or three-course menu.
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Broadsheet sat down with Smithers and NGV senior curator Dr Ted Gott to talk about the parallels between Smithers’s and Bonnard’s respective careers, Belle Époque French bistros and more.
Gott: We put [the exhibition] chronologically. You first meet the young Bonnard and you see that he’s working with a pool of artists who’ve been at art school together in the late 1880s. They call themselves the “Nabi”, or the prophets. When they formed this little club, they encouraged each other to unlearn everything that they’d learnt at four years of school.
What’s interesting is that they are not looking at impressionism, they’re on the other side of town. So, [it’s like] Monet and the impressionists are showing in Toorak, and these young men are in Fitzroy doing their own thing.
They’re interested in design and aesthetics. They’re interested in designing wallpaper, furniture, dresses, graphic advertising. They’re about design and pattern decoration rather than trying to reproduce nature. And in that sense, their works become very abstract. They’re cutting-edge, modernist artists who were on the verge of abstraction.
The Belle Époque
Smithers: When [Bonnard] was in Paris, it was the era of the Belle Époque bistro. They’re still bistros that exist today that he would have visited – they’re pretty touristy these days – but it’s exactly how you would imagine a classic French bistro, with a lot of the Art Nouveau motifs.
I am the student of one of Australia’s great masters of cooking, Stephanie [Alexander]. I’m a big grown-up 57-year-old now, but I still have that sense of student, teacher, master. Her love of this style of food has created the whole journey that I’ve been on with my cooking.
Gott: And we have two great paintings of French bistros in the show. So you’re inside looking out in both of them. One is 1913 and one is 1925. And it takes a while to decipher where you are in the bistro. And I think these are influenced by cinema, as well. In out, in out. Playing with reflection.
The menu and ingredients
Smithers: There are three separate menus for the four months [of the exhibition]. And for me, that’s incredibly important, because as someone who grows all their own food, I’m very aware of the seasonality of things and how quickly things can change. You can’t have the same menu at the beginning of June that you have at the end of October. Because life is completely different.
The French work very cleverly with food at various seasons, or within the seasonal context. There are classic dishes that fulfil the needs of those sort of weather conditions. I suppose the easiest example for me is something like lamb. When you have spring lamb – which is three or four months old, because it’s dropped in autumn – when you get it in the first months of spring, we’ve got all the beautiful fresh new herbs, all of those sorts of things. The lamb is very lean, and it’s very soft and it’s very pink and it doesn’t need a lot of cooking. It’s very light, and it fits in with what is in the vegetable garden.
By the time that lamb is nine months, 12 months old, the weather has changed completely. But so has the animal. It’s got more fat, and it’s more used for braising and slow cooking. It’s more warming. So, it’s those sorts of things that I think that the French almost take for granted with their dishes.
Gott: You see that very much in Bonnard’s landscapes in the second part of the exhibition, especially the arrival of spring. Out of his studio windows, there are huge wattle trees, what the French call “mimosa”. So you see these incredible yellow explosions. And then you have an almond tree in blossom.
Smithers: I often feel with my little acreage that if you picked it up, and you popped it in rural France 200, 150 years ago, it would be completely at peace and functional.
I cook for 100 people a week on my own in the kitchen, and we pick food every day. So every day before I go to work in raspberry season I’ll go and pick the raspberries. Every morning, the first thing I do is put on the bread. Treat nature with reverence and it will reward you.
Smithers: When you’re out in the sticks, there’s nothing that shields you from [nature]. And this is something that’s seen in art. When you do have urban painters that go into rural settings, there’s often a huge change in their work. There’s also – it’s not a sense of loneliness – but it’s easier to have a sense of aloneness. So you’re not lonely, but you’re alone. I love that. I couldn’t live in the city anymore.
Gott: And you do see that in Bonnard’s paintings. The first part of the show, while he’s living in Paris as a young man, he’s using quite dark colours and there are lots of scenes of his family eating, but they’re in a dark interior just with a lamp and then you suddenly think, “Yeah, this is the grey Paris. It’s a grey city with grey clouds.” And then when he moves to the countryside, it’s just wow.
Smithers: Is it like The Wizard of Oz?
Gott: It is like The Wizard of Oz. I’ve gotta get my red shoes.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Annie Smithers at NGV Garden Kitchen
180 St Kilda Road, Southbank
Sat to Thurs 11.30am–4pm
Fri 11.30am–4pm; 6pm–late
Until October 8