Overflowing with brilliant light and colour in the middle of a grey Melbourne winter, the NGV’s Bonnard exhibition takes the French painter’s propensity for bold, bright hues to another level. That’s no accident, considering how Paris-based designer India Mahdavi uses rounded archways and wallpaper-like extrapolations of the paintings to create a wholly immersive viewing experience. Entire rooms were designed to echo specific paintings or eras of Bonnard’s work, and even some custom-made designs on the floor riff on the images we see on the walls.
“It has this very intensely coloured interior,” says Dr Miranda Wallace, the NGV’s senior curator of international exhibition projects. “It’s very decorative in its presentation. People have said that everything is heightened – the colours and their emotions – and they feel really joyous as a result. The paintings are quite transportive: they’re taking you to this place where you’re thinking about natural qualities of light and colour.”
Bonnard, which runs until October 8 as part of the Melbourne Winter Masterpieces series, was first intended for 2020. It’s being presented in close partnership with Paris’s Musée D’Orsay, which held the planned loans of many Bonnard works even after the exhibition was postponed several years due to the pandemic. Working with Dr Ted Gott, the NGV’s senior curator of international art, and Isabelle Cahn, then the senior curator for paintings at the Musée D’Orsay, Wallace ensured that the entire arc of Bonnard’s career – from the 1890s to the 1940s – was represented. The collection gives the audience the full picture of his oeuvre, which focused on interior spaces and his flourishing home garden, first in Normandy and then in the south of France.
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“Ted is very much an expert on late 19th-century French art,” Wallace says. “My personal background is in 20th-century art, so we complemented each other well. We looked at how we could make an exhibition that includes the strength of [Cahn’s] knowledge and then looked at what isn’t reflected in that collection. My work was really completing the story of Bonnard, to complete the late work and seek loans from any institutions in North America.”
The exhibition was developed from the ground up. Everything was planned virtually before the final six months prior to opening, which were devoted to the logistics of transporting the art and building the bespoke spaces. In addition to her extensive work on the curatorial side of things, Wallace joined Mahdavi for an enlightening virtual tour of the exhibition in a partnership with HSBC designed to enable a deeper appreciation of the internationally inspired exhibition.
“That’s something you don’t get when you just go into the exhibition,” says Wallace. “You see the design, but you don’t see the process for the design. I think it’s really important for people to understand how [Mahdavi] approached it and why she chose to do what she did. It’s such a novel thing: no Bonnard exhibition has ever been presented in this way. It’s a really unusual bringing together of these two creative visions.”
As part of the NGV and HSBC partnership, a four-part in conversation video series has also been produced, featuring Wallace and Gott individually, as well as with Simone LeAmon, the Hugh Williamson curator of contemporary design and architecture, and Michael Varcoe-Cocks, associate director of conservation. Each tackles a specific facet of the exhibition or of Bonnard’s career and, like the virtual tour, adds another layer of appreciation to the collection.
“We get to provide some of the anecdotes that we can’t fit into a 100-word label next to the paintings,” says Wallace. “We have lots of stories and Ted has insights into the early period of Bonnard’s career, which was 1890s Paris. It was such a vibrant time in history. It’s a great opportunity to share some of those with the audiences.”
Wallace has worked on several big-ticket exhibitions at the NGV, including the current Rembrandt exhibition. Between her work, the exclusive videos and initiatives like the NGV’s after-hours Friday Nights series, she’s observed first-hand how such innovative approaches bolster the museum’s standing in the international art world.
“We are a very old museum,” she says, “and we’re often older than some of the museums we work with. We are very much known as [Australia’s] major museum of historical collecting, but also more recently with a really dynamic program. And really proactively changing what the model is for international exhibitions.”
That’s certainly true of Bonnard, a world exclusive that so inventively transforms the space around the works. Thanks to Mahdavi’s buoyant embrace of the subject material, the whole exhibition leaps to life in a way that surprises visitors.
“The paintings do sort of come forward off the walls,” says Wallace. “India did a clever job using quite a bold design. People are getting really carried away by how beautiful the paintings are.”
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with HSBC. HSBC is opening up a world of creativity this winter with a virtual tour and in conversation series in partnership with NGV. See more information.