Pierre Bonnard and India Mahdavi never crossed paths in the real world. Post-impressionist painter Bonnard died in 1947, some 15 years before designer and architect Mahdavi was born. Nevertheless, with its latest Winter Masterpieces Exhibition, Pierre Bonnard: Designed by India Mahdavi, Melbourne’s NGV demonstrates a strong connection between the two.

“Bonnard is an artist that, even though he did a lot during his life, his most renowned works are really his later ones,” says Meg Slater, NGV curator of international exhibition projects. “They’re really high-key colour, full of emotion. He almost exclusively painted from memory. India, similarly, is celebrated across the globe for her use of colour, her use of texture, form, usually to evoke some sort of memory, some sort of feeling. So there’s a really nice connection between the two of them in that way.”

The exhibition charts Bonnard’s entire career, from his early work in the late 19th century to his final days, including works from the NGV collection and over 60 pieces from the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, and private collectors. As each room documents the phases of Bonnard’s evolving style, Mahdavi has created a meticulously detailed atmosphere to complement them. Vibrant wallpaper riffs on a painting’s motif; grand-scale rugs and low-hung pendant lighting evoke Bonnard’s domestic scenes; and hessian walls nod to the artist’s work in music and theatre. “She never wanted to be historically accurate – that was never the point,” says Slater. “The point was that they link in these interesting ways on the basis of emotion, memory, texture, colour, form. It’s about creating a new environment to look at his work.”

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The exhibition begins by showing Bonnard as a young artist around the turn of the 20th century, part of a Paris collective called the Nabis. Works here grapple with a world of changing labour conditions and a reassessment of art’s context; among the highlights is Bonnard’s famous poster for the brand France-Champagne.

The striking gallery wallpaper is taken from the work of Bonnard’s contemporary and fellow Nabi, Edouard Vuillard, and stands in stark contrast to the beige decor of the next space. Here, Mahdavi uses muted colours to frame Bonnard’s illustrated music scores in collaboration with composer Claude Terrasse and his early fascination with film and cinema.

Though the exhibition explores plenty of Bonnard’s detours, a few big themes stand out. There’s his fascination with domestic scenes, which become subtly surreal with the passing years – dining tables with impossible angles, figures which bleed into the background, “domestic landscapes” which show exterior scenes as viewed from inside. We also track Bonnard’s enduring love for his wife Marthe de Meligny through works such as La Sieste, a piece once owned by American novelist Gertrude Stein and one of countless candid nudes of de Meligny on display at the NGV.

Bonnard spent his final years in the town of Le Cannet on the French Riveria, and it’s here that the exhibition concludes, too. The artist’s home has been preserved and the exhibition’s curators commissioned footage of the space as it exists now. A short film shows Bonnard and his home interspersed with examples from the artist’s daybook –sketches of Marthe, notes about the weather – and contemporary footage. “We thought it was a nice moment for people to feel a little bit more connected to the spaces they’ve just seen repeated over and over again,” says Slater.

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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, fine out more.

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