Languages of Pure Form and Color


In 1891, the young painters

Pierre Bonnard

(1867-1947) and

Édouard Vuillard

(1868-1940) shared a Paris studio, where they took a crucial step toward the invention of abstract art. But their contribution is often overshadowed by the legacy of the impressionists who preceded them and the modernists they anticipated. Starting Oct. 26, the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. will attempt to change that with a new exhibition, “Bonnard to Vuillard: The Intimate Poetry of Everyday Life.”

The exhibition comprises more than 70 works by the two artists and a few of their colleagues, including

Maurice Denis

(1870-1943),

Aristide Maillol

(1861-1944) and

Ker-Xavier Roussel

(1867-1944). All belonged to a group called the Nabis, derived from the Arabic and Hebrew word for prophet. Most of the works in the exhibition are from the 1890s, when the Nabis held group exhibitions. They followed in the footsteps of post-impressionists like

Cézanne

and

Gauguin,

who are also represented in the show, in charting a course away from naturalistic representation.

Curator

Elsa Smithgall

says that, according to Denis, Bonnard and Vuillard differed from their forebears in a crucial respect: “What’s most important is not the subject of the painting but the actual arrangement of colors on the surface”—an idea that points the way to the work of 20th-century abstractionists like

Mark Rothko

and

Jackson Pollock.

Bonnard and Vuillard “emphasize the pure language of art, form and color as a vehicle…really the rallying cry for abstraction,” Ms. Smithgall says. In fact, the Phillips’s own collection of Bonnards influenced American abstract painters like

Kenneth Noland

(1924-2010) and

Gene Davis

(1920-1985), who used color itself, often in lines, blocks or circles, as a way to structure paintings.

In the exhibition catalog, art historian

Katherine M. Kuenzli

observes how, in the work of Bonnard and Vuillard, “Distinctions between figure and ground are blurred to poetic effect.” For instance, in Vuillard’s “In Front of the Tapestry: Misia and Thadée Natanson, Rue Saint-Florentin,” an 1899 portrait of a couple who published avant-garde magazines and held artistic salons, the sitters almost blend into the tapestry that hangs in their Paris apartment. Similarly, in Vuillard’s “The Avenue,” an 1899 lithograph, green rectangles and flat patches of clothing are what mostly define a park-like streetscape. These works tend to flatten out three-dimensionality and emphasize pattern and form over content.

The exhibition begins with a Bonnard screen, the early, Japanese-influenced “The Stork and Four Frogs” (1889), whose brilliant red background and solidly greenish amphibians mark his departure from a naturalistic palette. A section of the show devoted to street scenes includes Bonnard’s “Nannies’ Promenade or Frieze of Carriages” (ca. 1896), a four-paneled screen of prints that forms a dizzying, cinematic array of stylized hoops, dogs, children and their caretakers. As in a frame from an animated cartoon, a hoop shows up in one panel and keeps rolling in successive ones. It’s no surprise to learn that Bonnard befriended the brothers Auguste and

Louis Lumière,

filmmaking pioneers in the years around 1900.

Edouard Vuillard, ‘Interior with Red Bed or The Bridal Chamber’ (1893).


Photo:

The Phillips Collection

Another section of the show devoted to interiors includes Vuillard’s “Interior With Red Bed or The Bridal Chamber“ (1893). Here he painted an emotionally charged scene—the night before the wedding of his sister, Marie. She was marrying Roussel, a Nabi painter who was a close friend of Vuillard. The bride-to-be, looking directly at the viewer, carries a tray, while her mother sorts through clothes and another woman, possibly a seamstress, works at a table. What stands out the most are the patterns: the vibrant rug, the brilliant yellow wallpaper and the yellow and black lines of the mother’s blouse. The rich layers, Ms. Smithgall says, reflect Vuillard’s fascination with tapestries; the arrangement of figures echoes the domestic scenes of Dutch masters like

Vermeer.

After the Nabis disbanded around the turn of the century, Vuillard and Bonnard remained close, continuing to paint successfully though never joining the move into abstraction in the first decades of the 20th century. In fact, many of Vuillard’s later works were far more traditionally naturalistic than his works in the 1890s. The two artists’ relationship was occasionally tense: Bonnard wasn’t thrilled to have to share billing with Vuillard in a 1930s exhibition. But Bonnard showed his affection for Vuillard one last time: Soon after the latter’s death, the aged Bonnard took on a commission from an Alpine church to paint St. Francis de Sales, a bishop of Geneva famed for his kindness. Bonnard gave the saint’s face the features of Vuillard.

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