Early in his career, Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) didn’t have many fans among his contemporaries. Camille Pissarro called his early paintings “hideous”, Edgar Degas labelled them “a complete fiasco”. Even Pablo Picasso weighed in, accusing him of producing “a potpourri of indecision”.
Bonnard may not be Impressionism’s most famous painter but, on seeing the more than 100 works on display at the National Gallery of Victoria’s Melbourne Winter Masterpieces exhibition, it’s hard to believe we are viewing the same paintings that caused such ire.
Perhaps his peers’ early derision was because many found Bonnard’s work hard to contextualise. He was a leading figure in the transition from Impressionism to Modernism, both mired in the past and ahead of his time. Keen to experiment, he was heavily influenced not only by the work of other Impressionists but by Japanese block printing, decorative arts and the early days of cinema, and he was not afraid to show it.
Bonnard was an exceptional painter and this is, for the most part, an extraordinary exhibition. A snapshot of his whole career, it features many works on loan from the Musée d’Orsay’s extensive collection. The cargo is so valuable the gallery needed financial assistance from the federal government to cover the insurance to ship and house the paintings here.
It is not only Bonnard on display in these huge rooms at the NGV International. The exhibition has been designed by Iranian-born, Paris-based architect India Mahdavi. Famous for her interiors – her elegant redesign of the Medici palace in Rome was unveiled last year – she’s an appropriate match for Bonnard. They are both masters of bold colour, happy to play with pattern and mess with proportion.
Mahdavi’s scenography is immediately visible in the exhibition’s first room. We are bombarded with her choices of patterns, colours and structures. The first is a giant standalone burgundy octagon that mirrors the shape of the nearby Octagonal Self-Portrait (c. 1890) by Édouard Vuillard, a fellow member of Les Nabis, Bonnard’s collective of young painters.
The octagon carries Twilight, or The croquet game (1892) in which we see some of Bonnard’s signatures developing. The almost ghoulish figures of women mid-dance show Bonnard’s aptitude for capturing not so much motion as the remembrance of it – the artist would sketch in situ but painted predominantly from memory. Hints of the setting sun appear in dabs of luminescent apricot and gold but it is Bonnard’s tones of green here that are most interesting: his mix of trees and shrubs in Shrek green, avocado, deep forest and khaki show a visionary gift for colour.
Twilight is flanked on either side by some of Bonnard’s depictions of the “theatre of the streets” – predominantly lithographs and paintings of Paris’s streets at night. These contain hints of how Bonnard will later portray light. In Paris Boulevard at Night (1900) the whisper of pink light from an upstairs window is repeated on the street, where figures, trees and horses are illuminated.
The wall colours here – the avocado from Twilight, mauves and pinks borrowed from other works – complement the paintings. However, the room is crowded by shapes – in addition to the octagon, there is a giant arch, created to mimic the fan displayed upon it – and lined with wallpaper adorned with minute elements Mahdavi has pulled, enlarged and repeated from individual paintings. There is a wall covered with what appears to be a blown-up painting, brown-toned and pixelated.
The problem in this first gallery is there’s not enough room for the paintings, lithographs, fans, screens and prints to breathe. With so much work, so much colour, pattern and architecture, one might be inclined to rush through and miss some of its highlights. If you can stand the clutter, spend some time in front of Le Chat Blanc (1894), one of dozens of depictions of cats within this exhibition. It is also arguably one of the world’s best. Then there’s Intimacy (1891) with its flat planes and wafts of smoke from the painter’s pipe mixing with those of his subjects’ cigarettes. Don’t miss Swiss painter and Nabi collaborator Félix Vallotton’s The Poker Game (1902) and The Dinner, Lamp Effect (1899). Both paintings look thoroughly modern, like William Eggleston photographs or film stills from an ominous 1990s family drama.
In the exhibition’s last two rooms, the collaboration with Mahdavi shines. Here we see evidence of what British author Julian Barnes calls Bonnard’s dramatic “breakout from half-lit, dark-hued Intimism to bright hotness … the awakening first to yellows, oranges and greens, then to pinks and purples”.
The rooms in which we experience this “bright hotness” are some of the gallery’s largest. They’re decked with bright yellow patterned wallpaper, golden soft furnishings and the luxury of space. This affords the viewer an opportunity to stand back, encouraging what the Tate Modern called, at its 2019 Bonnard exhibition, “slow looking”.
Moving through these later works, you’ll see it’s not just the colour palette that shifts: the subject matter turns inward. As he aged, Bonnard focused his attention to the landscape of the domestic. He painted his wife, Marthe, bathing, superimposing several layers of colour to create a shimmering effect. We see canvas after canvas featuring scenes from apartments in the south of France, tables littered with the detritus of long lunches, bowls of fruit, cats sitting, cats skulking, the way cats do. These objects, the teapots, plates and bowls of his home life, became stalwarts of these images: a familiar language that gave scope for Bonnard to experiment.
Many paintings include a person, often Marthe, painted almost as part of the background. Those that don’t have the feeling that someone has just ducked out of frame. Windows are thrown open to reveal wild, rambling gardens beyond.
These are not your average still lifes. In each, Bonnard plays with proportion, colour and object hierarchy. Put aside 10 minutes alone to try to understand Corner of a Table (1935), with its perspective that is both illogical and enigmatic. Bonnard is constantly, thrillingly surprising.
More than 50 years have passed since the last major exhibition of Bonnard’s work in Melbourne but these paintings feel as luminous as if they were painted yesterday. When given enough space to breathe among Mahdavi’s patterns, long pastel rugs and pink velvet armchairs, this exhibition is effulgent: bursting and shimmering with colour and beauty.
Pierre Bonnard: Designed by India Mahdavi is showing at the NGV International until October 8.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 1, 2023 as "Bright hotness".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription