In Living Color: India Mahdavi Reimagines Pierre Bonnard

In a new Australian exhibition, the work of the post-Impressionist French painter is brought to life in vivid and vibrant scenography.

When a contemporary designer, known as the “virtuoso of color,” meets a legendary painter, celebrated for their vibrant palette, the pairing proves a true visual delight.

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An art exhibition space with bright and colorful walls
Installation view of Pierre Bonnard: Designed by India Mahdavi on display from 9 June – 8 October 2023 at NGV International, Melbourne. Photo: Lillie Thompson

Such is the case with Bonnard: Designed by India Mahdavi, a new and exclusive exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), that sees French-Iranian designer India Mahdavi (1962–) curate the works of post-Impressionist painter Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947). The exhibition, which opened last week, is billed as a sensory visual experience that mines the colors of Bonnard’s oeuvre to build out immersive physical spaces and set pieces enveloping audiences in his artwork.

Speaking at the launch, Mahdavi says she saw the project—which took five years to complete—as “a conversation between Bonnard and myself as a designer.” Mahdavi is a renowned architect, decorator and designer who has attracted the title of “Grande Dame of Color.” Architectural Digest has repeatedly listed her on the top 100 most influential architects working today. Others even claim she popularized so-called “Millennial pink,” all while enjoying the privilege of designing the most Instagrammed restaurant in the world. Her knowledge of color and its potential see Bonnard’s work becoming living set pieces, extending well beyond the literal frame. The visual marriage, moreover, aligns both artists in their shared vision for favoring color in art over subject matter.

The NGV partnered with the Musée d’Orsay Paris, who loaned many of their Bonnard artworks to support the exhibition. In total, the NGV secured more than 100 pieces to build a comprehensive catalog of the artist’s career. Bonnard was a post-Impressionist painter whose portraits of landscapes and domestic spaces let color take precedence. Rich and sensuous hues overpower his subject matter to evoke unseen emotions available in everyday scenes and nature. The painter was particularly fond of capturing his wife—who suffered mental illness and bathed multiple times a day—creating works that depict her floating, bathing body to magnify its peacefulness while she suffered mentally.

Bonnard: Designed by India Mahdavi mines both the obvious and subtle color of Bonnard’s art, creating a deeply resonate and joyous viewing experience. “Certainly, color had carried me away. I sacrificed form to it almost unconsciously,” Bonnard once wrote. The exhibition is divided into several primary spaces, with the tenor and intensity of hue increasing as viewers encounter work from the later stages of his career. Littered throughout are set pieces—tables, chairs, couches—designed by Mahdavi that act as visual anchors, encouraging viewers to both literally sit outside and within the artwork itself.

A table in a brightly colored gallery space
Stop and sit at ‘Pierre Bonnard: Designed by India Mahdavi’. Photo: Lillie Thompson

First, “Theatre of the Everyday” sees Mahdavi uses sharp and pronounced feature walls to call attention to the subtle tones not obvious to the viewer in Bonnard’s early paintings. Stroll in the field (1896) is set against a sharp maroon wall that sees the deep green of the painting sharpened with a new intensity of feeling in an otherwise peaceful landscape rendering. The Checkered Blouse (1892), meanwhile, proves a delight up close in the mise en scène, with the seemingly sharp perpendicular lines of the tartan shirt blurred to create an experience that resists the focus that viewers want. We are left almost glassy-eyed staring at the portrait, in and amongst Mahdavi’s bold and rigid wall colors, intensifying the physical space around us.

A painting of a person in a checkered shirt holding a dog
‘The Checkered Blouse’ (1892). Musée Dorsay

Notably, Bonnard often painted entirely from memory, using sketches to start and then doing the rest in his studio. Accuracy was not important to Bonnard; the sensation of recalling the scene was. Key works, like Table Set in a Garden (1908), attract a kind of dreamlike and atemporal quality, lingering in an unfocused beauty before the eye. Stand back and you see thrilling backgrounds of hazy landscapes or domestic scenes; stand close and you see glorious colors harmonizing together, as white blurs with blue blurs with violet.

Mahdavi’s colors make Bonnard’s work pop. Photo: Lillie Thompson

Mahdavi, by contrast, sits at the other end of the spectrum and subscribes to rules of sharp color and contrast—both in her interiors and designs. Sometimes colors shouldn’t pair together, she says, but actually “swear at each other.” Being an interior designer, what is crucial to Mahdavi is extending out a visual motif found obscured in Bonnard’s work to then encircle viewers within the artwork, all as we move through. Color is so valuable to Bonnard, it’s only natural then that a small fragment of a hue—one that Bonnard would obsess over—be harnessed and extended out into the physical room by Mahdavi.

The final space is the symphonic crescendo to Bonnard: Designed by India Mahdavi that must be seen to be believed. Mahdavi somewhat understated her efforts here before the first viewing: “We dived into Bonnard’s paintings and extracted some of his patterns and colors to recreate backdrops to his paintings,” Mahdavi says, “offering an immersive experience of a home to the visitor.”

The experience is actually total and all-encompassing. You are invited to stand within the small margins of key paintings, wrapped in the likes of joyous tea greens and animated citrus colors that prove overwhelming in vibrancy and intensity. Some wallpaper patterns—extracting the subtlest hues from the artwork—radiate an almost camp fifties aesthetic pleasure, modernizing and domesticating Bonnard’s work within the home once more.

‘Landscape with tugboat’ (1930). Musée D'Orsay

In one particularly vivid nook, Mahdavi juts many of his landscape paintings, like Landscape with tugboat (1930), against the sharp greenery a lively patterned wall. This is paired with early sketches of landscapes, creating a private sanctum that showcases his rich imagination—and a reminder of how he created these works from memory. There’s even a Claude Monet painting, Vétheuil (1879), squared against Bonnard to set Impressionism against post-Impressionism, side-by-side, reminding us of the most radicalized approach Bonnard and his contemporaries took to color: subjectivity and feeling trumped subject matter.

While Bonnard’s paintings are the stars of the show, the exhibition also includes intimate personal photographs. The painter was an early adopter of photography at the turn of the 20th century, taking photos of relatives and his wife using a favorite Kodak camera. Mahdavi plays with us when she sets these black-and-white candid images against pink rosey wallpaper, emphasizing a childish naivete that these unrehearsed shots suggest. There are even a few bold self-portraits that make you feel an immediate intimacy with Bonnard, encased by the warmth of the pinkish wall winking back at you. It’s rose-tinted finery.

Melbourne now has the rare pleasure of enjoying a radiant bright spot in its otherwise dark winter arts season. Bonnard: Designed by India Mahdavi lets the vivid art of Bonnard become a living experience, all delivered with clarity and sharpness by a world-class and innovative designer. An exchange in creativity, cohesion and color-obsession is what’s on display between Mahdavi and Bonnard here—one that reanimates the post-Impressionist painters’ works for a contemporary audience while highlighting the sensuousness of color found in Mahdavi’s lush interiors. It’s a wonderful time to let color overwhelm you and simply savor the experience.

Bonnard: Designed by India Mahdavi is on view at the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia through October 8.

In Living Color: India Mahdavi Reimagines Pierre Bonnard