The pleasures of Pierre Bonnard are so obvious that some – mainly artists and critics – treat them as something to be resisted, lest we enjoy him a little too much.
All those French doors revealing cobalt skies, tablecloths laden with fruits and cakes, his beloved dachshunds, indolent nieces and plump cats scattered around verdant gardens. All his paintings seem “to take place a few hours either side of lunchtime”, Julian Barnes once wrote: it is true, too, that every day in Bonnard’s world looks like a perfect summer afternoon. And his wife, Marthe, was ever present – Bonnard painted her almost 400 times – feeding a pet under the table, sprawled post-coital on a messy bed, pottering about nude in the garden or climbing out of a seemingly endless run of baths. It is la belle époque, when la époque was truly belle.
The recurring nature of such domestic pleasures means viewers can play a kind of Where’s Wally with Bonnard, says Miranda Wallace, a senior curator at the National Gallery of Victoria, where a new show dazzlingly designed by the 21st century’s buzziest colour whiz, India Mahdavi, opens this weekend.
“If you spend more time with Bonnard, you discover so much, because there is quite a lot hidden. Where are the cats? Where is the small figure harvesting flowers in the garden? Where’s Marthe?” she says. “There’s so many elements that reward slow looking” – so much so that when London’s Tate Modern held a Bonnard show in 2019, it announced special “slow looking” sessions for an artist best enjoyed at a languid pace.
And yet, “That’s not painting, what he does,” Picasso once grumbled of Bonnard, dismissing his daubs of colour as “a potpourri of indecision … If he looks long enough, he winds up adding a little yellow, instead of making up his mind what colour the sky really ought to be.” The critic Clement Greenberg once sniffed that Bonnard “smells permanently of the fashions of 1900-14”; John Berger found Bonnard’s “dissolving colours [made] his subjects unattainable, nostalgic”. Writing in his diaries in 1908, the author Andre Gide recalled scoffing at the high bids a Bonnard work was attracting at an auction – before apparently realising he was the one bidding.
Picasso can whinge all he wants about what shade a sky “ought to be”, but Bonnard has long been beloved for his colours: the famous flares of yellow, the unhurried stippling of sherbet pinks, electric oranges and rich, royal blues. So it is fitting that the NGV enlisted Mahdavi, the acclaimed Iranian-French architect and interior designer credited with, among other things, making millennial pink a thing. (“I don’t want to sound like I’m boasting,” Mahdavi once said, “but I changed the way people thought about pink.”) The New Yorker once called her “a sort of supertaster for colour, a possessor of perfect chromatic pitch”.
About 100 of Bonnard’s paintings have been gathered up from museums and private collections around the world to sit within an exhibition space designed by Mahdavi, whose use of colour in luxury hotels, restaurants and bars around the world edges on both playfulness and sophistication. Where museums can be austere, Mahdavi’s space is a joyous explosion of colour; you may emerge as I did, feeling strangely restored.
Mahdavi knew little of Bonnard, but before the exhibition she immersed herself in his art, pulling out recurring patterns like flowers and dots to make wallpapers and rugs, and working with a Parisian paintmaker to mix shades that are recognisably hers – pistachio greens, burnt oranges, pinks and browns, deep plums – that also complement his.
“At first when you look, you might think Bonnard’s work is a bit bourgeois, and that’s it,” the 61-year-old says. “But there’s so much more to it. What I tried to do is bring those elements forward, so you have a more immediate perception of the genius he was.”
Mahdavi loves bold colours that almost shouldn’t work together – or, as she once put it, “when colours swear at each other”. Her love of colour began with Disney movies and the colourful foods packed in her lunchbox when her family moved to the US: “Colours are a form of expression for me – it comes from my inner self. And I think Bonnard sees colours in the same way,” she says.
Bonnard was also obsessive about colour: when he mixed a new hue that was just right, he’d retouch old paintings – including those already hanging in museums, roping his friend and fellow artist Édouard Vuillard into distracting the guards. Mahdavi’s favourite Bonnard work is a suitably bright, late work: Studio with Mimosa, painted in Le Cannet between 1939 and 1946. Mahdavi once lived in the south of France too. “I just recognise so much in it – the bold colours, the light, the vibration. That’s the one I would take with me, if I had to steal one,” she laughs.
Bonnard famously painted not from life, but memory; he strove to capture the essence of a scene rather than the reality. “He takes an everyday scene, then changes it as he remembers more over time,” Wallace says. This means his paintings feel uniquely atemporal and dreamlike – and sometimes they’re just weird, like his famous 1894 painting of a stretched-out cat, Le chat blanc, which is now a meme. (“A cat expressing catness,” as Wallace puts it.)
The artist was ambivalent about museums: reportedly, while strolling around the Louvre, he once observed, “The best things in museums are the windows.” Agreeably, Mahdavi has included a few windows in her exhibition that allow visitors to glimpse the treasures ahead of them, as well as furniture and rugs inspired by Bonnard’s work, creating a space that Wallace hopes will encourage people to “spend more time than usual here, really live with the art for a bit.”
Mahdavi introduces us to Bonnard as a young man in Paris, then the friends and family who influenced him most: pioneering film-makers the Lumière brothers; printmaker Toulouse-Lautrec; his beloved sister, Andrée, and her husband, the composer Claude Terrasse. Their family photos, captured with the first Kodak camera, are on display, as are the bashful nudes Marthe and Bonnard took of each other, as references for his more Arcadian paintings.
You can see how his colours noticeably lighten as Bonnard began to spend more time in the south of France. You can see the inspiration he took from his visits to the older artist Claude Monet at his home in Giverny; and from entertaining younger artists in Le Cannet (by then, he was old enough to be their Monet). The exhibition concludes with Bonnard’s very last painting: an almond tree in blossom in 1947. By then too weak to hold a brush unassisted, Bonnard enlisted a nephew, giving him a final direction that would have doubtless annoyed Picasso: “It needs some yellow.”
Pierre Bonnard: Designed by India Mahdavi is open at the NGV until 8 October.