Pierre Bonnard is one of the most beloved painters of the 20th century, celebrated for his use of colour to convey an exquisite sense of emotion. His close friend Henri Matisse declared that Bonnard was ‘a great painter, for today and definitely also for the future’. Opening in June 2023, the blockbuster Melbourne Winter Masterpieces exhibition Pierre Bonnard presents the iridescent paintings of Bonnard within immersive scenography by Paris-based designer India Mahdavi.
A kaleidoscopic exhibition, Pierre Bonnard features more than 100 works by the celebrated French artist, spanning the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century. Paintings, drawings, photographs, folding screens and early cinema will bring modern France to life with startling beauty and vivid colour. Developed in partnership with Musée d’Orsay, Paris, the exhibition is largely drawn from the museum’s impressive holdings of works by Bonnard alongside significant loans from other collections in France and beyond.
The first sections of the exhibition explore Bonnard’s central role within the Nabi circle of artists, as well as his interaction with the contemporary worlds of music and theatre. Calling themselves the Nabis, the young artists Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, Édouard Vuillard, Paul Ranson, Paul Sérusier and Félix Vallotton banded together in the early 1890s, and saw themselves as the Prophets of a new art that they envisaged encompassing every sphere of modern life – interior design, furniture, fans and textiles, stained glass, and commercial illustration and advertising. Paintings by Vuillard and Vallotton will be shown alongside prints by Denis.
During this period, Bonnard recorded daily life in the streets of Paris in an immediate and startlingly close manner, observing what he called the ‘theatre of the everyday’. Influenced by his friendship with the pioneering filmmakers, Auguste and Louis Lumière, he became one of the first artists to draw inspiration from the new medium of cinema in his art. He also embraced photography and cast his artist’s eye over his family circle to capture moments of unexpected movement and impromptu composition. Films by the Lumière Brothers are screened alongside dynamic urban scenes Bonnard produced during this period.
Bonnard’s meeting with Maria Boursin (known as Marthe de Méligny) in 1893 led to his own domestic intimacy, culminating in a remarkable series of nude studies, both lithographs and paintings. As Bonnard and Marthe shared their life together, this led to longer periods spent in the countryside for Marthe’s health. Alongside his intimate studies of their domestic life, Bonnard undertook campaigns of landscape painting, engaging with the legacy of French Impressionism. Visits to the south of France from 1909 onwards brought a new intensity of colour to Bonnard’s art, ‘this colour that drives one wild’ as he put it. A rich selection of the warm and vibrant interior scenes and still lifes recorded by Bonnard following his move to the south of France form an important part of the exhibition. In the last decades of his working life, Bonnard created works of poignant introspection – self portraits and scenes of his daily life with Marthe – and others of majestic scale and joyous colour, celebrating the luminous landscapes around Le Cannet, the town near Cannes on the French Riviera where he and Marthe lived.
For Pierre Bonnard, the NGV has commissioned award-winning architect and designer India Mahdavi to design the exhibition’s scenography. Described by The New Yorker as a ‘virtuoso of colour’ and ‘possessor of perfect chromatic pitch’, Mahdavi envelops Pierre Bonnard’s works in an environment that complements the artist’s distinct use of colour and texture, and the domestic intimacy for which his paintings are so renowned.
A design icon, Mahdavi has appeared multiple times on Architectural Digest’s list of the world’s 100 most influential architects and designers. Her singular approach to colour, structure and texture has resulted in numerous acclaimed projects, including commissions for hotels, restaurants and retail as well as scenography for exhibitions and fairs, including for Design Parade Toulon and Homo Faber, Venice. Mahdavi engages with both art history and contemporary culture to create a unique exhibition experience with Bonnard’s works. Wall and floor applications, as well as furniture, add a three-dimensional experience to the sumptuous, domestic interior worlds synonymous with Bonnard’s paintings.
Melbourne Winter Masterpieces 2023 – Pierre Bonnard Exhibition
9 June – 8 October 2023
National Gallery of Victoria