The Colour and the Shape

India Mahdavi designs a vivid world for the work of Pierre Bonnard

Above Image: The RED Valentino store in London with interiors by Mahdavi. Photo courtesy of RED Valentino.

By Aliette Boshier

If the average gallery-goer spends just 27 seconds in front of an artwork, then Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947) is the antidote to a short attention span. Often invoked by today’s “slow art” movement, which encourages sustained looking, his masterful use of luminous, scumbled color and the intimate nature of his subjects reward the viewer with numerous layers of texture and meaning. In one of Bonnard’s most well-known paintings, Dining Room in the Country (1913), the eye is drawn to the figure of his wife, Marthe de Méligny, leaning on the windowsill in a crimson dress. But let the gaze wander and other details emerge—a swathe of delicate lace curtain, ghostly cats on chairs, fallen petals at the base of a jug, and outside in the garden, barely visible, a woman picking flowers.

Dining Room in the Country (1913), oil on canvas. Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The John R. Van Derlip Fund Photo: Minneapolis Institute of Art.

As a fellow “virtuoso of color,” acclaimed French-Iranian designer India Mahdavi has set the scene for a vibrant encounter with Bonnard at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, featuring more than 100 of his paintings, drawings, prints, and photographs. “In response to his work and their shared interest in the domestic realm, Mahdavi has created an immersive scenography that she describes as ‘an impression of his world through my own eyes,’” says senior curator Miranda Wallace.

The historic apartment of Cardinal Ferdinando de Medici, one of six rooms reenchanted by Mahdavi at the Villa Medici, Rome 2023. Photo © François Halard. Architect and designer India Mahdavi at the exhibition. Photo by Lillie Thompson. Installation view of Pierre Bonnard: Designed by India Mahdavi featuring the artist’s Twilight, or The Croquet Game (Crépuscule, ou La Partie de Croquet) (1892). Photo by Lillie Thompson.

Mahdavi—whose projects include an Instagram-famous millennial pink interior for the London restaurant Sketch and a recent update to six rooms at the historic Villa Medici in Rome—consulted closely with both the National Gallery and the Musée d’Orsay, the largest collection of his works in the world. Chronicling a painter who straddled artistic movements in two centuries, the exhibition charts the trajectory of Bonnard’s peripatetic life, from his student days in Paris and as a member of the post-Impressionist Nabis group through to the dreamlike compositions that define his later years spent amid the seemingly endless summer of the French Riviera. Marthe is there throughout, sometimes a pallid nude observed in the act of bathing, at other moments an ephemeral presence hovering almost out of frame.

Mahdavi’s staging takes the form of a conversation with Bonnard’s works—extracting, distilling, and reflecting them back in her own visual language. The images on display provide inspiration for the patterned wallpapers and rugs, while doorways and apertures create a sense of continuity between the gallery spaces. Other pieces by Mahdavi complete the picture—such as the Best Friend chair, upholstered in her striped velvet for Pierre Frey, or the iconic Bishop stool—adding further “hints of domesticity” that echo the warm familiarity of the artist’s paintings. Visitors are encouraged to interact with the furniture as they would in their own homes, to sit awhile and take a closer look.

For Bonnard, color was a conduit for sensation, and he gave himself up to it entirely. Preferring to paint from memory, he wandered from one canvas to the next, adding a dash here, a stroke there, until it matched what he felt inside. With his brush and palette, he was able to capture fleeting impressions that shape everyday life, ushering the viewer across a threshold to experience, in vivid tones, that singular moment for themselves. 

Pierre Bonnard: Designed by India Mahdavi on view from June 9 – October 8, 2023 at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.  

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