A master of interiors

A master of interiors
Rhonda Dredge

The Pierre Bonnard exhibition, on as the winter masterpieces at the National Gallery of Victoria, should appeal to photographers.

Art historians and artists also love the French painter and printmaker because he went against the establishment.

NGV curator Ted Gott said the exhibition was cancelled just before the lockdown and he was “glad, because it would have been on for one week”.

Gott was jubilant at the curatorial coup, with more than 100 works on loan from the Musée d’Orsay in a show exclusive to Melbourne of an artist the ruling elite in Paris had laughed at. 

From the outset, in the first painting Street Scene 1899, the exhibition tracks the influence of photography and cinematograpy, with a dark silhouette of a man and horse against a well-lit Parisian street. 

Bonnard knew the Lumiere brothers and became interested in lighting, experimenting with the kind of blurring effect that a camera might register rather than the human eye.

In a series of paintings by him and colleagues, such as Lunch by the Lamp 1893, he focused on figures around a table with a low-hung light creating a noir setting.

Bonnard’s early days in Paris were political with the older painters said to have been dismissive of his monochrome palette (as in the lithograph Avenue du Bois de Boulogne of 1898) but he found colour on moving to the south of France, and this is the basis of the wallpaper setting by India Mahdavi. 

Bonnard painted his partner Marthe de Méligny obsessively, often while bathing, and some have accused him of objectifying women.

It is worth a second visit to follow up some of these questions. Was he really that keen on photography? And was there a deeper significance in the Marthe nudes?

There is some strange cropping to his interiors which suggest that he was thinking about how a painter might enter the interior space depicted in his paintings.

When he painted a self-portrait, he always cast a dark shadow over his face, suggesting a psychological element to his thinking.

In the 1890s he took up photography and in one shot of a group of children, the shadow of one child falls on another.

Photography was not new at that stage, and it was possible to move around with a hand-held camera.

The question remains unanswered about the photography with some experts claiming that theories of internal images and the unconscious might have been more influential on his thinking.

His paintings usually depict open windows with a table inside and patterned interiors that are turned into a sumptuous palatial feast by the wallpapered displays.

The intimate scenes of Marthe bathing are moving. She is said to have become a recluse and Bonnard remained loyal to her, despite his early conviviality.

It’s a case of sitting back like Marthe on the bed, slowly pulling up your stockings and enjoying the show. 

Pierre Bonnard: Designed by India Mahdavi, National Gallery of Victoria, until October 8.•.

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