Sydney Morning Herald Column


Published June 20, 2023
Pierre Bonnard, 'The studio with mimosa (L’Atelier au mimosa)' (1939–46)

Matisse and Picasso, those twin towers of modern art, had one serious point of disagreement: Pierre Bonnard. In her tell-all memoir, Life with Picasso, Françoise Gilot recounts her former husband’s scathing opinion of Bonnard: “That’s not painting, what he does. He never goes beyond his own sensibility. He doesn’t know how to choose… The result is a pot-pourri of indecision.”

Upon entering the show…

It sounds nasty, that “pot-pourri of indecision”, until we stop and reflect that indecision in painting can be as much a virtue as a vice. The artist who is unable to be self-critical is more likely to be an egomaniac than a virtuoso, possessed of more self-confidence than talent. Picasso, who had his own share of neuroses, seems to suggest that the artist must wield a brush with the skill and decisiveness of a matador plunging his sword into a bull – but this is not the way most painters operate.

For Matisse, Bonnard was not only one of his closest friends, but “a great painter today and assuredly in the future.” Judging by the number of Bonnard exhibitions being held today, following a period of posthumous neglect, it seems history is very much of the same view.

Pierre Bonnard, ‘The checkered blouse (Le corsage à carreaux)’ (1892)

Should you harbour any doubts about Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), this year’s Melbourne Winter Masterpiece exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria provides a good opportunity to blow them away. I’m forever being chipped for being too positive about the NGV and too critical of the Art Gallery of NSW, as if I were backing the Storm over the Rabbitohs, but when Sydney puts on a show as spectacular as Bonnard, I’ll be first to sing its praises.

The NGV’s success has been built on a dynamic exhibition program that understands big name artists are not simply ‘brands’, guaranteed to bring in the punters. A successful show needs an original thesis, a scholarly foundation, quality loans, and first-rate exhibition design.

What sets this Bonnard apart from all the other Bonnard shows is found in the subtitle “Designed by India Mahdavi”. An internationally renowned architect and designer, Mahdavi’s Parisian showroom and workshops are only a block away from the Musée d’Orsay, which has provided most of the loans for this exhibition. Like Bonnard, Mahdavi (b.1962) has made her reputation as a colourist, willing to experiment with unorthodox shades and combinations.

Pierre Bonnard, ‘Twilight, or The Croquet Game’ (1892)

The Orsay has been exceptionally generous, allowing many iconic pictures to travel to Melbourne. One of the reasons for this largesse is the museum’s curiosity to see how well this novel combination of artist and designer succeeds. Give the French a good idea and they will lend you important works and come along to the party.

Pierre Bonnard, ‘Marthe with with absinthe’ (1894)

It also helps that the show’s chief curator is Isabelle Cahn, who worked at the Orsay for many years as one of the pre-eminent experts in late 19th century French art. She has included a few surprises among her selections, such as a small portrait of Bonnard’s wife, Marthe with absinthe (1894), sourced from a private collection in Paris, but most works are familiar in the best sense, meaning that it’s a pleasure to see them again.

The really big surprise is the presentation, which hits us with explosive force as soon as we enter the gallery. My first reaction was the same as almost everyone I spoke to at the preview: “What is this?! What have they done?!”

Bonnard via India Mahdavi



In place of the usual white or coloured walls, Mahdavi has reproduced details of a Bonnard painting on a great green arch that sits at the front of the room. It’s not a photographic reproduction, but an artist’s sketch. On the far wall another painting is given the treatment – a dinner scene, not by Bonnard, but by his lifelong friend, Édouard Vuillard. Yellow flowers and green foliage patterns appear on two more giant screens. The only painting by Bonnard that is prominently displayed is one of his large décorations: Twilight, or The croquet game (1892) – a patchwork of dull greens, in which dresses and jackets appear as flat patches amid the shrubbery. The picture is set on a large, reddish, octagonal panel, a shape apparently inspired by a tiny Vuillard self-portrait which also features in the show.

Pierre Bonnard, ‘La Place Clichy’ (1912)

First impressions are disorienting, chaotic, downright bizarre. It’s only when one explores the exhibition that Mahdavi’s visual onslaught begins to make sense. The colours and patterns relate to the pictures in a way that is organic, but not obvious. The colour of a wall may be in a slightly higher or lower key than its relative within a painting. Patterned wallpaper is used to create intervals between different sections of the show. In a gallery in which we look at Bonnard’s involvement with the theatre, the overall colour scheme is a beige, almost shocking in its neutrality. The use of carpets and furniture, which seems so cavalier at first, lends an amazing energy to this design.

Pierre Bonnard, ‘Ouverture d’Ubu Roi, tiré de Répertoire des Pantins’ (1898).

Mahdavi has taken on the Bonnard challenge in the boldest manner. She could have created a massive distraction from the paintings and works on paper, but at no stage did I feel that anything was lost. Miraculously, one’s appreciation is enhanced rather than overwhelmed.

Within this unconventional frame we explore Bonnard’s entire career, beginning with his Bohemian years in Paris, where he designed posters and did drawings for the theatre, most notably for Alfred Jarry’s anarchic play, Ubu Roi (1896) a piece judged so scandalous it opened and closed on the very same night. We don’t think of Bonnard as a radical figure, but he completed more than a hundred sketches of Jarry’s characters, and in later life would name one of his dachshunds, Ubu.

Bonnard attained status and notoreity as part of the Nabis – a group of young artists who took their name from a Hebrew word meaning “prophet” or “redeemer” and viewed Paul Gauguin as their Messiah. There was a Symbolist, mystical streak to some of Bonnard’s colleagues, but he and Vuillard were more interested in painting large-scale works that filled whole walls in clients’ houses. The mystery of art was to be found in the play of colour and form, not in any quasi-religious mumbo jumbo.

Pierre Bonnard, ‘The balcony box (La Loge)’ (1908)

We are more familiar with the older Bonnard, living like a recluse in the south of France, with his wife, Marthe de Meligny, who never seemed to grow older in his paintings. The works he made during the final two decades of his life are Bonnard’s masterpieces. They are unique in the history of art, and infinitely suggestive. If I started talking about individual pictures this would be a very long column, so I’ll stick to a few general observations.

The reason why Mahdavi’s radical exhibition design succeeds is because she has responded intuitively to Bonnard’s highly idiosyncratic feel for colour. The “indecision” Picasso despised is the key to these paintings, as Bonnard’s colours are adulterated with many other shades, capturing nuances of light, suggesting movement and instability. The objects in these paintings squirm with a kind of inner life, as if their very molecules are in ferment. Shadows are treated as planes, people as spectral prescences whose blurred faces give nothing away. A head might disappear into the background as if it were dematerialising.

Pierre Bonnard, ‘Nude crouched in a tub (Nu accroupi au tub)’ (1918)

For Bonnard, who preferred to paint from memory rather than observation, every form passed through his own, peculiar sensibility. When he paints faces, including his own, shrouded in shadows, he is suggesting the impossibility of ever truly knowing another person, and the extreme difficulty of knowing oneself. His face studies are anti-portraits, rejecting the conventional idea that a skilful likeness may convey acute psychological insights. For Bonnard, all human beings were terminal puzzles that defied the artist’s best efforts at definition.

When it came to painting interiors, landscapes and still lifes, he would imbue these images with an extraordinary emotional intensity. Cézanne boasted about astonishing Paris with an apple, but Bonnard never ceases to astonish with the ecstatic power he brings to the depiction of humble, everyday scenes which transcend the physical and take us into the realm of the metaphysical. There is a hallucinatory, dream-like dimension to these paintings that hints at the volcanic power concealed beneath the aging artist’s scrawny, hangdog appearance. Bonnard, the notorious introvert, was possessed of an inner life of operatic proportions that constantly spilled onto the canvas. Every detail seems filled with meaning, although only the artist could have told us what he was thinking – and that’s no certainty.

Pierre Bonnard, ‘The checkered tablecloth (Corbeille et assiette de fruits sur la nappe à carreaux rouges)’ (1939)

What’s finally so satisfying about Mahdavi’s exhibition design is that she has discerned this demonic force pushing against the skin of appearances in Bonnard’s work, giving his colours that bruised and bloodied look, pushing forms and planes into strange alliances. It’s a view of the world seen through a temperament that rejected all sense of stability while living the most sedentary of lives. If there is still no dedicated biography of Bonnard, it’s because all the action happened in his mind. He may never have gone beyond his own sensibility, as Picasso alleges, but when that sensibility had the power to transform the entire world, it seems foolish to complain. What Picasso recognised in this unassuming painter, was an intensity of purpose that cast a threatening light on his own showmanship. Picasso hogged the spotlight, but Bonnard is modern art’s great painter of interiority. By looking into his own psyche, he created paintings that address the deepest recesses in our own minds. His works are like vortexes: once we’ve been captured, there’s no escape.


Bonnard (Designed by India Mahdavi)

National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne,

9 June – 8 October, 2023


Published in the Sydney Morning Herald,  17 June, 2023