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Gallery's next-level risk pairs Bonnard with designer

The National Gallery of Victoria's pairing of French master Pierre Bonnard with contemporary designer India Mahdavi pushes the limits of visual arts presentation, NGV director Tony Ellwood says.

"I've never seen it done ... this is the next level, modestly, of innovation when it comes to the pairing of a contemporary designer with an old master," he told AAP.

Bonnard was a renowned colourist and a major figure in French painting at the end of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, from a group credited with bridging the gap from impressionism to modernism.

For Winter Masterpieces, his works will be presented not on white walls but in an environment or scenography created by Mahdavi, who designed wallpaper, furniture and other items for the show inspired by his paintings.

Like Bonnard, the Iranian-French architect and designer is known for her use of colour - her dreamy redesign of the Sketch Restaurant at the Gallery of London is one of the reasons dusty pink features in contemporary palettes.

"We dived into Pierre Bonnard's paintings and extracted some of his patterns and colours to recreate backdrops to his paintings, offering an immersive experience of a home to the visitor," she said.

The gallery has been working on the exhibition design with Mahdavi for five years, according to curator Meg Slater, down to the colour of the labels describing the paintings, and Slater hopes Bonnard himself would be pleased with the result.

"His most beloved domestic interiors reappear in his work over and over again. This nod to the domestic, the non-gallery environment, I think he would really like it," she said.

Elwood hopes the public will find the presentation harmonious and well-conceived but acknowledges innovation comes with an element of risk: will the design and environment created by Mahdavi overwhelm or distract from the works of the French master?

"There will be some people in the community who may not like it and that's OK," Ellwood said.

"There will be others in the community who probably see it as one of the most memorable experiences they've ever had."

The exhibition was meant to be staged in 2020 but when the pandemic hit, the gallery had to make sure the works would still be available if the show was delayed.

The Musee d'Orsay in Paris, which has loaned 75 paintings for the show, promised they could still travel to Melbourne despite the delay.

Mahdavi grew up visiting the museum, which is the main repository of Bonnard artworks in the world.

Pierre Bonnard: Designed by India Mahdavi is on at NGV International from June 9 to October 8.