This fall’s expansion and re-hanging of New York’s moma has been an exciting occasion to consider and debate the story of modern art: what that story is, and how it should be told. moma’s behemoth institutional status—its massive collection, its massive endowment, its position in the very center of the world’s cultural capital—has lent these discussions great weight and consequence. The stakes are high, and everyone knows it. (See Karen Wilkin’s review in this issue.) But the din of political squabbling that inevitably follows doesn’t necessarily make for the best conditions for looking at art. I was thus happy to have the chance recently to escape Manhattan and take a day trip to the Phillips Collection, in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington, D.C. The Phillips, having opened a full eight years before Alfred Barr’s museum, prides itself on being “America’s first museum of modern art.” Nevertheless, it is a much smaller institution, and less “important” in the mainstream sense that leviathans such as moma impose from above. Founded in 1921 by Duncan Phillips, the art-critic scion of a wealthy industrial clan, the Phillips Collection soon became known for its impressive holdings in modern painting. Phillips and his wife Marjorie—both passionate lovers of art and both dilettantes in the old, full sense—built their collection by the guiding light of an informed personal taste, one that was pointedly critical of the prevailing opinion that Modernism signaled a rejection of our Western artistic tradition.
The Phillipses saw, rather, that the best examples of modern art actually continued—and indeed rejuvenated—that tradition. This led them towards paintings concerned more with age-old criteria such as truth, beauty, and formal quality than with political posturing or inflammatory sensationalism. Thus, at the Phillips Collection—still housed in the Phillipses’ original red-brick Georgian Revival house—we find Bonnard above Picasso, Rothko above Pollock, Arthur Dove above Marcel Duchamp. All minority views, to be sure. But at this lived-in and living home for art, with its warm atmosphere conducive to the best kind of viewing, the evaluations are all well posited and persuasive.
Now, a special exhibition at the Phillips, “Bonnard to Vuillard: The Intimate Poetry of Everyday Life—The Nabi Collection of Vicki and Roger Sant,” celebrates a new gift of artworks perfectly suited for the museum built by Duncan and Marjorie Phillips. Over more than twenty years, Vicki and Roger Sant acquired one of the nation’s most distinguished private collections of Nabi art. Vicki Sant, who died last December and to whom the exhibition is dedicated, was a trustee at the Phillips for more than thirty years and also served at different times as its president, chair, and honorary chair. In her memory, Roger Sant has promised their collection to the Phillips; the current exhibition includes more than forty of the bequeathed paintings and works on paper, as well as two bequeathed print portfolios. Organized by the Phillips’s senior curator Elsa Smithgall, it also includes a number of paintings from the museum’s existing permanent collection.
The promised gift contains stunning, important works that will automatically boost the Phillips Collection’s already strong holdings in this area. Many of the objects are being shown publicly for the first time. But instead of pretending to review comprehensively the Nabi period, the Sant Collection self-consciously dives deep into one side of the group: the more intimist Nabis such as Bonnard, Maurice Denis, and Édouard Vuillard, who painted what they saw and searched for the extraordinary in the ordinary (hence the exhibition’s title).
It’s probably just as well: the Nabis as a whole were a difficult bunch to pin down. A mystically inclined group of young artists at the Académie Julian in Paris, the Nabis coalesced around a painting made by Paul Sérusier under the watch of Paul Gauguin in 1888. Original members included Sérusier, Bonnard, Denis, Paul Ranson, Ker-Xavier Roussel, and Vuillard, all of whom are represented in the current exhibition. “Nabi,” transliterated from the Hebrew for “prophet,” doesn’t actually do much to explain what they were about. Over the course of their roughly ten-year association, the group also called themselves the “Neo-Traditionalists,” “Symbolists,” “Impressionist-Symbolists,” and “Synthetists.” As this list of murky monikers might suggest, these individuals found it difficult to pinpoint any sort of basic, unified aspiration towards which they could direct their efforts.
Still, certain theoretical commonalities can be found, most notably in the writings of Denis, a painter-philosopher who served as the group’s unofficial theoretician. Opening his 1890 manifesto “Definition of Neo-Traditionalism,” Denis argues that “a painting—before being a battle horse, a nude woman, or an anecdote of some sort—is above all a flat surface covered with colors arranged in a certain order.” In a basic sense the idea is quite plain: of course paintings are, and always have been, arrangements of color on a flat surface. Denis’ “neo-traditionalist” label hints at the rear-minded character of his thinking. Nevertheless, the manifesto clarified for many of the Nabis their growing attraction to pictures powered predominantly by color, line, and pattern. This formalist appeal, which would later be seen as a founding document of modern art, undergirds the spirit of the Sant Nabi Collection.
“Bonnard to Vuillard” is organized according to genre and media, putting these often varied and disparate objects into illuminating dialogue. Thus, we have sections with such titles as “Intimate Interiors,” “Sensations of Nature,” “Life on the Street,” and “From Painting to Printmaking.” Upon entering the introductory gallery, we’re greeted by Bonnard’s Stork and Four Frogs (ca. 1889), a large, three-panel decorative screen that betrays obvious Japanese ukiyo-e influence in its arrangement of the scene’s various forms on a single, frontal plane. It’s a youthful and energetic composition—indeed the first the artist made after deciding to devote himself full-time to painting. Beyond the Japanese influence, Bonnard’s enthusiasm for intense, straight-out-the-tube hues signals Gauguin; the screen’s flat background, a deep and intense vermillion, serves up an optical wallop against the green complementaries used for frogs and foliage.
The next gallery, consisting of indoor scenes of often poignant domestic moments, includes some of the most important objects in the Sant Nabi Collection. Vuillard’s Interior with Red Bed (The Bridal Chamber)(1893) gives us, just left of center, a busy young girl on her wedding day, in stride, carrying a tray. (At roughly twelve by twenty inches, the cardboard support is small, like most objects in the exhibition.) In a rare move for the artist, Vuillard has her staring straight at us (usually his subjects are turned away or looking down), giving an immediate potency to the painting’s emotional content. Another Vuillard, In Front of the Tapestry: Misia and Thadée Natanson (1899), integrates its figures more bewilderingly into their environment. Here, Vuillard subsumes husband and wife within the over-all labyrinth of pattern, space, and light created by the tapestry behind them. Vuillard’s decision to frame the painting with the leafy borders of the tapestry itself forces the point, so that it can be difficult to tell what is “real” and what is mise-en-scène. Also in the gallery are an excellent Bonnard (Interior with Screen, ca. 1906) and a decorated watercolor lampshade by Denis (Wedding Party under the Japanese Lanterns, 1893), made as a gift for his new wife.
On the smartly hung walls of ensuing galleries, wonderful moments of consonance proliferate. Vuillard’s Red Roofs (1890) and Bonnard’s Landscape near le Grand Temps in Isère (1889–90), each roughly ten inches to a side, each containing a French country landscape dotted with coral orange terracotta roofs, have been stacked vertically and sit in charming conversation. Formal resonances bridging “art” and “life” link the cloisonnist use of dark contour lines to delimit forms in Denis’ Musicians (ca. 1895) to Roussel’s Garden, an 1894 stained glass window produced by Tiffany & Co., with its strong black borders holding the colored glass in place.
In “From Painting to Printmaking,” we find L’Estampe originale (The Original Print), a collaborative album commissioned by the publisher André Marty in 1893. A sampling from the project includes lithographs by Bonnard, Toulouse-Lautrec, Vuillard, Félix Vallotton, Roussel, and others. These prints are vastly disparate in subject, style, and sensibility, suggesting that the severe representational restrictions presented by lithography and other printing methods had the effect of forcing the artists to find new, individual solutions to make their pictures—similar to how poets are usually liberated rather than inhibited by the limitations of metric structure. Then there is Paysages et Intérieurs (1899), an album of thirteen lithographs made by Vuillard and published by the legendary art dealer Ambroise Vollard. Here, devices we know so well from Vuillard’s paintings—expanses of patterned wallpaper that hide figures in plain sight, doors that open into multivalent spaces, the evocative use of a support’s colored ground—find their way winningly into the prints.
Continuing along, there are a number of veritable gems to be found in the streetscape section of the exhibition. Many seem to be concerned in large part with the question of representing passing city movements in the reductive and blocky idiom that these artists have developed for themselves. On one wall, we have a lithograph in five colors by Bonnard, The Little Laundry Girl (1896), a downward-looking view onto a small girl hurrying along, listing to the right as she balances a large basket in her left arm. The print is paired with its preparatory drawing in pencil, watercolor, and gouache; the juxtaposition allows us to look over Bonnard’s shoulder as he translates, re-works, and reduces forms to prepare the image for printing.
The exhibition’s last gallery contextualizes the Sant Collection with a number of stunning works from the Phillips’s permanent collection. Here, an undeniable show-stopper, though an outlier among the Sant Collection’s otherwise exclusive focus on Nabi art from the 1890s and early 1900s, is Vuillard’s At La Divette, Cabourg: Annette Natanson, Lucy Hessel, and Miche Savoir at Breakfast (1913, reworked in 1934). It’s somewhat fashionable to think that Vuillard got worse as he got older—that later paintings such as this one, stripped of their more radical Nabi stylizations, reveal a loss of modernist nerve. Or worse, that they show acquiescence to the conservative, Impressionist tastes of his haute-bourgeois patrons. The sheer quality of At La Divette should cause us to reconsider. Here Vuillard indeed picks up certain Impressionist tools, but he does so in a way that is both forward-looking and wholly his own. A quality that carries over from his Nabi period, one Vuillard shares deeply with Bonnard, is an obsession with analyzing the sensation of looking. We experience the painter’s arrangement as one might experience the depicted room having walked into it for the first time: fruits, bowls, napkins, knives, and newspapers slowly coming into focus in the foreground; then the figures, dogs, and windows that make up the rest of the room; then the mirror image that reflects the whole scene back on itself. Ten minutes into sitting in front of the picture and I was still discovering new details. It’s an astonishing work.
It should be clear as day, as Maurice Denis wrote in 1890, that a painting is at heart a flat object covered with colors. It should also be obvious that for a painting to have any value at all, it must be seen. In an era in which many influential collectors buy paintings like commodities and proceed to store them in warehouses, unviewed for years on end, we should be thankful for collaborations such as the one taking place between the Sants and the Phillips Collection, which bring these profoundly perceptual artworks into public view, for all to see.
1 “Bonnard to Vuillard: The Intimate Poetry of Everyday Life” opened at the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. on October 26, 2019, and remains on view through January 26, 2020.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 4, on page 21
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