Edouard Vuillard, Interior with Red Bed, 1893, oil on cardboard
Bonnard to Vuillard: The Intimate Poetry of Everyday Life
Phillips Collection, Washington DC October 26, 2019-January 26, 2020
“I don’t paint portraits. I paint people in their homes.” —Edouard Vuillard
Anyone who has ever wondered how late-nineteenth-century French art transitioned from Impressionism to modern Abstraction should, if they’re passing through Washington, DC, pay a visit to this fall’s current eye-opening Phillips show of Nabi paintings, prints, and other works, which runs through end of January, 2020. It manages to be both lavish and understated. However many hours you devote to it, its glimpses and studies of the lost world 1890s Parisian interiors and streets, with some landscapes (not the Nabis’ primary motif of pictorial design) may nudge you to rethink some received ideas about the nascent abstract and expressionist modernism that partly co-existed with, finally superseding, the Nabi movement style. As Pierre Bonnard would write, outliving the Nabis’ 1890s heyday but paying tribute as he developed his own style and individual oeuvre, “The pace of progress speeded up, society was ready to accept Cubism and Surrealism before we had achieved what we had set out to do. We were left, as it were, hanging in the air.”
These paintings now hang, however—gloriously, on the real and commodious wall space they merit. They’re so intelligently laid out, documented, and, as the show’s organizers confidently assert, revisited “transformatively” that visitors may come away concluding Nabi painters, illustrators and decorators fully take their place beside the Fauves as innovators. (Bonnard and Matisse were friends.) However dramatically those later bold colorists’ canvases may outglow and outdance the Nabis’ less strident—yet more strategic—placement of harmonious hues and values, the Phillips’ collection of Bonnards, Vallottons, Denis, Roussels, Ransons, Vuillards inter alia take on a fin-de-siècle brilliancy and texture of composition, formal notation, and even rendition of movement or gesture that challenge, anticipate in earlier iteration, the dynamism of Fauves, Nordic and German Expressionists, even Italian Futurists. Anybody believing before this show that Bonnard coudn’t hold a candle to Matisse, or Vuillard to Vlaminck, or Vallotton to Lautrec, or even Paul Sérusier and Maurice Denis to, say, Rouault, may need to considerably revise their tastes.
Various painters grouped among, or closely affiliated with, the Nabis can be followed in various venues: gallery exhibit records, art-critical essays, later reminiscences. Early on some wore a succession of labels, including Cloisonnists (1886-88), Synthetists (1889), Neo-traditionalists (1890), Idea-ists (1891), school of Pont-Aven, Symbolists and “deformers”, simply “young painters” or, alternately, the Paul Gauguin and the Paul Cézanne “Schools.” The first exhibition comprising works exclusively by the Nabis seems to have been reviewed simply as “A Group of Painters” (October 25 to November 5, 1893). Thadée Natanson wrote of it, “we can see together a number of painters whom we have already met elsewhere and of whom it can truly be said that they form a complete group.” How dealers, buyers, the press, the conoscenti, the larger public, and their painter competitors tagged their early work depended somewhat on vagaries of context and venue. But Nabi artists themselves knew they were Nabis, even signing their letters to each other with initials standing for the enigmatic motto, En ta paume, mon verbe et ma pensée—my word and thought are held in the palm of your hand. Henri Cazalis (1840-1909), a poet and friend of the circle, appears to have coined their name in 1888 from Hebrew for prophet. It served, Janus-like, to link them to traditional precursors (i.e., Italian primitives and medieval craftsmen) and foretell what the avant-garde soon became in the new century.
It helps to contrast their imagery with the Impressionists’. Nabi theorist-painter Maurice Denis declared “…all changes in our sensations, object and subject. One would have to be a star pupil to find the model on the table to be identical two days in a row. Life, color intensity, light, mobility, the air, a host of unrenderable things are all changing. Here I come to the well-known themes all quite true and obvious!”
Mutable optical sensations had been attested to and painted by Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro, Caillebotte, Mary Cassat, Manet, Degas and others, even as the Nabis laid new emphasis on the changing subject. The Nabis’ objective was not so much the light or time of day as the passing, tranquil (sometimes disquieting) mood evoked by an everyday scene or action. Typically the latter took place in a more confined space of street, or block or corner of a street, or carpeted domestic interior. Theirs was a more artful, theatrical or dramatic space than perceived in plein-air or atmospheric-indoor space on Impressionist canvases (though Degas’ eye was of course drawn close-up to the stage and orchestra pit, and Monet could be masterfully intimiste). Nabi artifice, design, and composition, in other words, suggested a temperament made visible by a corner of creation rather than the Impressionist corner of creation seen through a temperament. (The latter formulation was Impressionist-promoter Zola’s.)
Impressionist and Nabis alike took Denis’s plasticity of the look of the world minute-by-minute for granted. But since Nature for the Nabi tended at first to be sacralized, then increasingly represented by an artificial, accultured, often densely decorated and domesticated interior room, its intricate background designs and décor could take on more poetic reality, more geometric repetition of pattern, than looser Impressionist crosshatched and dotty or comma-y brushstrokes conferred on their variegated time-settings.
Interior with Pink Wallpaper II 1899, lithograph printed in five colors
While Impressionist touches “dissolved” matter into effects of light, Nabi staging of flat patterns also often juxtaposed a foreground sector with background designs (or outside views), aestheticizing both. This may be what Denis meant speaking of the homogenéité de la matière of their pictorialism: it’s unclear here whether “matter” intends the physical materiality of the object, or rather anecdotal subject matter. When arrangment of pattern becomes the theme and drama, do not the two fuse?
A subtle shift in urban subject matter took place between their precursor early Impressionists and the Nabi formalists-expressionists. It was the conclusion of T. J. Clark, in his now-classic The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers (1984) that the former documented a highly differentiated phase of social life in capitalism, with Haussmann’s boulevards just freshly disrupting old Paris and the middle class venturing out into the urban tumult, re-ordered recreation spaces, and mass-consumed activities—to both bedazzlement and a sense of anxiety, isolation, anomie. “Something had certainly happened,” Clark wrote, “leisure had become a mass phenomenon, a separately capitalized sector of social life in which great profits were to be had. Recreation took on increasingly spectacular forms: the park, the resort, the day at the races, the café-concert, the football league, the Tour de France, and finally the Olympic Games.” …From at least the start of the 1860s there was felt to be some kind of threat to the moral economy of bourgeois society—the fine fabric of Parisan neighbood trades and manufacture, the fact-to-face, small-scale, master-and-man society of the metropolis in the earlier part of the century. Haussmannization was resisted as the visible form of that threat; it was held responsible for the dark deeds of the Pereire brothers [construction profiteers financed by Crédit Mobilier] and the owners of department stores.
Manet’s absinthe-drinker, Folies-Bergère bar maids and top-hatted patrons, his Universal Expo 1867 and Tuilleries garden crowds, etc. manifested both the alienations and excitements of Clark’s “subcultures of leisure.” And his Claude Monet et sa femme dans son bateau-atelier of 1874 registered at a glance the modern painter adapting to and cursorily reflecting the changed pace, industrialization (note its background’s factory smokestacks), and sensations of shimmering flux by setting up his portable easel in a makeshift rowboat, barely awninged from the elements, and “sketching” in paint from portable tubes of pigment and palette a river view.
Claude Monet et sa femme dans son bateau-atelier, 1874 (left) Claude Monet in his Bateau-Atelier, 1887 (right), whereabouts unknown, by John Singer Sargent
The American Sargent paralleled Nabi preferences by framing Monet frontally from within the rowboat’s open hut, making the scene a kind of picture within a picture.)
Some twenty odd years down time’s road, avant-garde tastes recalibrated, from the mobilities and expansiveness of public spectacle to concentration on more private, quotidian enjoyment of pre-made objects of both art and living. Many Nabi pictures (though not all) featured more contracted fabrications or fantasies from which open-air atmospherics, city- and landscapes were either excluded or circumscribed by and through open windows. If the Impressionists had looked into and upon Nature from a Copernican point of view within it, the Nabis looked at Nature as if it were already a work of art, even a pretext for their own designing skills. (Or: they looked out at Nature—through a framed opening. This was the very premise of Vuillard’s nine panels commissioned in 1894 to appear as if they looked out onto the Bois de Boulogne and the Tuilleries.)
Nature’s internalization might be motivated by, point in, a variety of intended directions: early on, more spiritual/contemplative (traditionally Catholic, medieval, or even Plotinian) ones; all along more formalistic ones, preoccupied with geometric patterns and sinuosities of lines and arabesques; also functional ones, sensitive to the purpose and placement of their artworks and crafts as décor or illustration integrated into living spaces and the constraints of material media. This didn’t mean, however, they hadn’t absorbed the lessons of Impressionist evanescence and meteorology. (At the seventh Salon des Indépendants in 1891, the Swiss Nabi Félix Vallotton—splendidly represented by key works in this exhibit—showed six drawings framed together of landscapes transformed by different weather conditions.) But simply that they translated Nature into a more personal stylistic idiom, as decoration on a par with Symbolist theatrical scenery and set designs.
This may be why their projects and collaborations resonate so closely with our own digital moment of monetization and strategic co-sponsoring. Without prostituting their talents shamelessly to the promotionalism and vulgarities of trademarking, mass manufacture, or Madison Avenue sloganeering—limited-run designs of stained glass scenes that Ker-Xavier Roussel was commissioned to produce for Tiffany & Company in 1894-5 apparently failed to take off with the buying public—Nabi artists typically worked on a regular or sporadic basis with a prodigious number of not commercially naive symbolist art sponsors, dealers, and editors. These partnerings suggest gradations of elite art-production somewhere between bohemianism and outright entrepreneurialism. And the show organizers suggest they may have had much more to do with the late nineteenth-century avant-garde arts and crafts movement of William Morris and architect Philip Webb than with productions and technologies of a later phase of scientifically rationalized industrialization.
Certainly the group’s energetic theoretician Denis mainly upheld Baudelaire’s denigration of photography and the dilletantish hyper-realism of the panoramas of Edouard Detaille or Alphonse de Neuville. Literary naturalism à la Zola and mainstream positivism—not to mention the dogmatic and mechanical copying-from-models taught by the Academy—were likewise anathema. Denis derided William Bouguereau and Meissonnier (about whom Vallotton wrote more favorably) along with “the good, infallible apparatuses of rigorous exactitude they have sought to fabricate in the academies.” And he dismissed their version of “nature” as “the crowds’ trompe-l’oeil…like grapes in the paintings of Antiquity pecked-at by deceived birds.”
What, then, were the perceptions of an un-deceived eye redefined by the Nabis on canvas, cardboard, paper, glass, and fabric? The answer is: a fusion of what was eye-pleasing and what the given supporting medium would allow and optimize. Already commodities, these base materials were given the surplus value of pattern and decorousness, which the exhibit sets off with actual furniture and harmonizing wallpaper in select rooms. Nabi stylizations, while not as intricately polychromatic as Renoir or Monet, achieved some gorgeous parings of keynote colors. Vuillard’s Interior with Red Bed or The Bridal Chamber balances golden yellow against ocherous red, lemony yellow against the peach of his sister Marie’s blouse. Marie turns her head for a cheerful glance at the viewer as she helps prepare the tastefully furnished chamber in the apartment she will share with Vuillard’s fellow Nabi Roussel. (The marriage did not go as well as intimated by this Kodak moment.) In Vuillard’s Apprentices (1891-2) darker and lighter blues are set off against reddish-orange and yellow, immortalizing the figure of his widowed mother who made corsets and dresses in her domestic shop.
Vuillard, Apprentices, 1891 (left) Denis, Yellow Gable, 1895 (right)
Denis’ Yellow Gable (circa 1895, oil on cardboard), which at first glimpse almost calls to mind a Georgio de Chirico (de Chirico’s surreal dream cityscapes more isolated and depopulated), rewards the abstracting eye avid for color and pattern with orange, yellow, light blue-grey (shadow), a cobalt sky and patches of dark green. And, as late as 1935, with his Nude in an Interior (in the Phillips’ permanent collection but not displayed in this show) Pierre Bonnard remained true to the metamorphic colorism of fellow Nabis, its interior bathroom a study in impasto harmonies of golds, yellows, and blues, rippling and glowing like something molten.
Bonnard, Nude in an Interior, 1935
In this oil and many of the show hangings, one notices the organization of room space according to meeting of two walls in a corner (also in Bonnard’s Interior with Screen, 1906; in Vuillard’s Madame Vuillard with a Pink Cup, c. 1893 and Mother and Child, c. 1901; and in Denis’ The Musicians, c. 1895). My pet theory is that in adding the stabilizing, if, for some, claustrophobic, interest of a rectinlinear vertical, situating figures and décor of familiar domesticity within the corner of a room allows some minimal breathing space of perspectival spatial volume and depth. The “box edge” effect lightly counters the flat planar “screen” effect. (Thus the corner line is not just another line among the flat patterns but a meeting place of two walls.) It’s nothing remotely near the converging vanishing points of Cinquecento Renaissance perspectivalism. Nevertheless it representationally nuances the proto-non-figuralism of abstract color fields with which the Nabis have forever been associated by Denis’ 1890 prouncement to “Remember that a picture—before being a battlehorse, a female nude, or some kind of anecdote—is essentially a flat surface covered with colors and assembled in a certain order.”
The exhibit showcases how new techniques of chromolithography obliged Nabi printmaking to organize compositions in discrete chromatic segments, patches or fields as the imprinting process involved making separate successive stone impressions onto the paper for each color. The method rubbed off (pun intended) onto their other works in watercolor, gouache, distemper on canvas, oil, ink, and tapestry and proved especially congenial to the organic stylizations of form and dominant hues influenced by Japanese crépons. Regarding Bonnard’s iconic Little Laundry Girl of 1896—a lithograph printed in five serially laid down colors—one could be forgiven for confusing its off-kilter, silhouetted, stunted, folded umbrella-assisted mop-head urchin with something the friend-to-Nabis Toulouse Lautrec would have conceived. Sentimental or misérable? Both at once.
Posters, lithographs, print graphics for the proliferous little reviews of criticism and symbolist poetry and for albums of estampes originales, aquatints, designs in needlepoint, tapestry wools and other fabrics, fired ceramics and freestanding or mounted screens—all were fair game for these Nabi imagiers (an antiquated term recalling medieval scultpure/carving). Taking part in this cross-fertilization and circulation of visual material media also helped advance sales of Nabi works and diffusion of reputations. The French actor and theater director Aurélien Lugné-Poe (1869-1940), for example, started in 1891 sharing a studio on the rue Pigalle with the critic Georges Roussel and the rising Nabi painters Bonnard and Vuillard. Thadée Natanson, the Warsaw-born publisher of La Revue blanche (founded 1891) frequented the studio and featured Nabi prints in its pages. This facilitated Lugné-Poe’s active placing of paintings through an expanding network of buyers, whereby “some Vuillards took up temporary residence in the dressing rooms of celebrated socialites,” as he later recalled. It was when Félix Vallotton contracted with a publisher to put out a volume of his engravings that he confided “I probably won’t make any money off it, but…these very large engravings could make me become known, lead to a Salon, and perhaps bring something more serious.” In a sense, the tight-knit Nabi network (many of them had even attended the same Parisian lyceé Condorcet) comprised a de facto guild or co-op of fellow workers that may have been the nearest a group of painters came to the fraternal artist colony of the South Van Gogh (dead in 1890) had dreamed for himself, Gauguin, et al. One link to this idealized utopia may have been its echo with Gauguin’s erstwhile disciple Paul Sérusier who enthused, “I am dreaming of a cohesive fellowship for the future, one that consists only in committed artists, in love with the beautiful and the good, who instill in their deeds that indefinable characteristic that I translate as Nabi.”
Some viewers might fault such indefiniteness when it translated, in plastic terms, into the slightly blurred or smeared or tentative outlines and features of figures in their paintings and some prints. They can seem almost wet around the edges. Yet Monet and Manet had been faulted for much the same thing. And don’t forget that expressive subversion of an over-precise “licked” or polished (léché) finish and modelé (volumetric definition in space) in academic painting was precisely the intent. As Whistler acidly quipped apropos the pre-Raphelite Burne-Jones, “his works are perhaps finished, but they were never begun.” The absorption or dissolution of the human body and objects of vision into pattern—of foreground into background—reaches a crescendo of sorts in Vuillard’s In Front of the Tapestry Misia and Thadée Natanson, Rue Saint-Florentin (1899), where the perfunctorily defined couple (Thadée’s clawlike hand even recalls those of Jesus in Gauguin’s Yellow Christ) are seated before a flat visual profusion so alike in texture and colors to the foreground that, for all the naive viewer knows, it could almost be a real garden in the window. Or contrariwise: pull on the thread; both quilt and diners may unravel.
Vuillard, In Front of the Tapestry: Misia and Thadée Natanson, Rue Saint-Florentin, 1899
Lest visitors come away equating Nabi sensibilities with the miniaturizable haut bourgeois comforts and art for art’s sake of belle époque objets de luxe or conspicuous consumption, the show takes pains to layer in some small and larger masterworks with political overtones and universalizing ambition.Two in the former category are Vallotton’s woodcut, The Demonstration and 1897 oil on cardboard.
Valloton, The Demonstration, 1897
The Demonstration appeared among Nabi and other prints comprising the first (March 20, 1893) of nine albums of The Original Print (L’Estampe originale) brought out by Eric Marty from 1893-95. Paris’ Ecole des Beaux-Arts having exhibited Japanese prints in spring 1890, Vallotton had experimented since autumn the next year “with woodcuts of crowd scenes containing monochrome figures heavily influenced by the[ir] flat patterns” (William Rodner). He would also have viewed Gauguin’s black-and-white zincographs on yellow paper and Emile Bernard’s watercolor-and gouache-retouched zincographs (his Bretonneries album), with their simplified, sinuous figures and shapes, on the wall of Volpini’s café-restaurant during the 1889 Universal Exposition. Vallotton “japonized” the Parisian urban scene where Gauguin’s Synthetists had inked flat primitivist motifs of Bretons performing their agricultural labors. This episode’s chaotic kinesis, accidentality, and panic contrasts with Gauguin’s mood—and, for that matter, also with Bernard and the Nabi Denis’s more spiritual or contemplative mood—and with Gauguin’s statuesque and archetypal Eve figures illustrating the Volpini catalogue. (Where Gauguin sat his expressively posed female nudes against black rocks, the jumble of the dark forms and masses of the demonstrators stand out from their tan background and race forward awkwardly down or “up” the cropped-off street.) Nothing quite like this dynamism of dark and light, flat surface yet recession in depth, dramatizing political photo-journalistic subjects through stylistic novelty, had been seen. The exhibit devotes a room to Nabi street scenes, and its Bonnard’s Boulevard (c. 1890, gouache, watercolor and ink on simili Japon paper) makes use of voids and darkened calmer massing pedestrians, which his Nannies’ Promenade or Frieze of Carriages on a four-panel screen (c. 1896) stylized even further. But Vallotton was the master of homogenizing ink (and elsewhere color in oil, as with the lady’s purple cape in his Passerby of 1897) into decorative field-shapes without sacrificing narrative content. “It would be wrong,” Charles Goerg wrote in 1972, “to assume that [Vallotton’s] transition from drawing to engraving involved merely a process of subtraction on the part of the artist. He tensed the line in an arabesque and flattened the surface by immersing the objects in a blackness that regrouped them all in the same plane.” And thus “The modification that on the formal level produced decoration was the twin of the one that on the level of significance gave the commonplace, everyday event a timeless, unchanging generality.”
Vallotton, the entirety of whose career (1865-1925) suggests as much affinity with Degas and Ingres—at the 1905 Salon d’Automne where he exhibited the painting Models at Rest, he openly wept before Ingres’ Turkish Bath shown there in a retrospective—had moved to Paris and attended the Julian Academy during 1882-85. He would exhibit realistic portraits at the Salon des Champs Élysées from 1885 to ’91, but acclaim began when showing at the Salon des Indépendant of 1891 and with Rosicrutions in spring 1892. Despite his first Nabi-inflected painting in mural figure-style Bathing on a Summer Evening‘s being met with ridicule (Toulouse-Lautrec feared the police might remove it), by 1893 he would show woodcuts and paintings in three expositions with his Nabi friends and earn their respectful nickname “The Stranger.” Growing notoriety led to contacts with revolutionary socialist and anarchist journalists who appreciated his street scenes and to commissions as illustrator-portraitist for Natanson’s La Revue blanche over almost a decade (1894-1902). His persistent regret at needing to earn money from popular anecdotal draughtsmanship in journals, including brilliantly schematic literary-celebrity portraits, led him to present paintings alongside the Nabis in 1867 (Salon de L’Art Nouveau) and concentrate output only in oils by 1902, though returning to ten woodcuts in 1898’s masterful series Intimités.
In Vallotton’s prodigious ’90s decade as a Nabi many of his paintings (especially of interiors) were consistent with Nabi subject matter and thematics. Yet by gently documenting, in a more socially realistic idiom akin to harsher satire, the material basis of their fixation on fashion, surface, and congeniality with upper-bourgeois or nouveau riche stylish luxury, he relativized (if not ironized) the consumerism of their social class. It’s not that the Nabis were the limousine liberals or champagne radicals of their day. Many for example defended Captain Dreyfus, supported progressive causes, and arguably were solidly middle-class. But simply: if for the Nabi painters (particularly Vuillard and Bonnard) the human being could dissolve into the tidy order of wallpaper and other configurations of comfortable, upholstered daily life, for Vallotton’s roaming eye’s more pitiless (some say icy) naturalism that being might seem more the product of flawed human nature, of crowd or mass dynamics, even of revolutionary or absurd accident. Hence his later violent cartoons covering the depradations of world war. And his pre-war neutral, yet keenly contemporaneous, quasi-photographic journalism places something like quotation marks around the arbitrariness of economic relations, role-playing and commodification of goods and services that undergirded Nabi indoor aestheticism.
(On left) The caption reads, “The latest fashion in mourning clothes, Madam, in broad daylight it looks purple,” lithograph from L’Escarmouche, No. 8 (Dec. 31, 1983). (On right) The ‘Bon Marché’ Department Store, 1898 oil on cardboard.
On these matters in the instance of his incisive, even jaundiced Street Scene, circa 1895 (oil on cardboard), let wall text from the Phillips’ exhibit be given virtually the last word: …with flat asymmetrical compositions in shallow fields…he has captured the subtle power dynamics at play in the highly stratified society of Paris at the fin de siècle. Vallotton draws attention to the young laundress, a common sight on the streets of Paris at a time when the laundry industry was employing over one-fifth of the population of Paris and its suburbs. Balancing the weight of a basket with her small frame as she strides resolutely, she is oblivious to the figures behind her—two women conversing, a gentleman, and another woman standing by. The women’s elegant crinoline skirts, fashionable high-collared jackets, and feather-trimmed hats indicate that they are from a high social stratum. …His composition… acknowledges the psychological distance between the worker and the leisure class. The little girl may have inspired Bonnard’s The Little Laundress, 1896, on view nearby.
Vallotton, Street Scene, 1895
Bonnard, The Little Laundress, 1896
What the ’90s Nabis, and the newly perfected techniques of miniaturization, compaction, and synthetic coloring and patterning accomplished was a visually poetic tour de force every bit as powerful as the sciences of photography and nascent cinematography. The wider world—its spaces and disruptive flows of mechanized time—would dance to the beat of a quicker rhythm, one Abstraction and Expressionism would register in their turn.
Eric Rauth is writing a study of the painter Gauguin. He’s interested in the scientific and philosophical meanings of synthesis in art. Holding a Ph.D. from Princeton (Comparative Literature), he has authored journal articles on cinema (in Apparatus and Bright Lights Film), history of blasphemy, and other topics bridging the worlds of visual culture, media, and language. Three of his translations into English from French have appeared with Columbia UP and Verso, along with several art-historical and media essays by Régis Debray. Visiting appointments included teaching French at U of Oregon and UNC-Greensboro, with posts as Critical Inquiry Center fellow, research associate in the Princeton Time Project, and editor for educational and language-learning start-ups. Based in the Washington, DC and North Carolina triad areas. Has the intellectual wherewithal, will travel. And likes dogs.