The Phillips Collection’s latest exhibition celebrates a significant promised gift the museum hopes will inspire a reassessment of a short-lived, often overlooked group of post-Impressionist French artists.
“Bonnard to Vuillard: The Intimate Poetry of Everyday Life” draws from the Nabi collection of Vicki and Roger Sant. With over 70 pieces on display, the exhibition explores the group of painters in the 1890s who called themselves the “Nabis,” a name that comes from the Hebrew word for prophet. These artists — including Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard, Maurice Denis and Ker-Xavier Roussel, among others — embraced color, form and bold lines, inspired by Paul Gauguin’s style, as an abstract, symbolic expression of human emotion.
“The Nabi Sant collection adds mightily to the growth of our holdings and strengthens our role as a leading center for the research and presentation of late 19th-century European art,” Elsa Smithgall, senior curator at the Phillips Collection, said.
While “Bonnard to Vuillard” lacks the power and immediacy of the Phillips Collection’s most recent blockbuster exhibition — the searing, incredibly ambitious “The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement” — this showcases an important part of the museum’s future as the holder of this impressive gift, and illuminates its longstanding role in introducing America to modern art.
Cozy and intimate, as promised in the title, “Bonnard to Vuillard” is a wise choice for a show that stretches through winter. With lithographs, paintings, woodcuts, drawings, Tiffany stained glass, wallpaper motifs, tapestries, small bronzes and even theater programs and book illustrations, the exhibition offers a thoughtful survey of this group of versatile artists. With images of social inequality, the life of the home, animals, city scenes and more, this show offers a varied examination of everyday life in late 19th-century France. The influence of the graphic art of Japan was also a major part of the group’s aesthetic and is explored within the show, which notes how the Nabis drew upon 19th-century Japanese ukiyo-e art.
Paul Ranson’s yellow lithograph “Tiger in the Jungle” pops against the deep blue wall color selected by curators, and a tapestry he designed — likely woven by his wife, Marie-France — is particularly stunning. It’s a vivid example of the arts and craft movement, and a subtle reminder of the question of who is the artist.
There’s an interesting thread throughout the show on the shift from painting from life to painting from memory, as expressed in the vibrant yellows, reds and oranges of Vuillard’s “Apprentices.” Reflecting his mother’s corset business, the work here transforms into an explosion of color. But the details and patterns in these pieces of art also matter, with their exploration of geometry and prints in familiar settings. The exhibition intriguingly notes that the Nabis often used newly available handheld Kodiak cameras to trigger memories that they then turned into works of art.
Vuillard’s “Interior with Red Bed” offers a particularly striking example of his intimate genre scenes, giving a look into his sister Marie’s preparation of the bedroom on her wedding night as it ensures the vibrant prints on display in the room are of the most immediacy and highlighting the Nabis’ interest in medieval tapestries. Memory becomes feeling becomes art in this Phillips exhibition.
These artists are often associated with dark, almost stifling rooms, and this exhibition reinforces that in many ways, but also adds an eruption of color and design to the overall understanding of the Nabis. Pinks and yellows and oranges stand out in these works, as in Maurice Denis’s “View of Mayenne,” with a subtle pink and purple sky reflected in the path. His “Yellow Gable” is another memorable piece, defined by the geometry of the buildings bursting in yellow against the brilliant orange streets that fade into a dour blue gray.
The landscapes in the exhibition are delicate and personal, with some true surprises. Tucked away in a corner, in Bonnard’s “Afternoon in the Garden,” an oil-and-pen-and-ink on canvas, faces explode out of the hydrangeas and the greenery that seem to envelop and entomb the bodies. It’s lush and strange and unexpected, and comes displayed in a wonderful frame.
“It is a striking work and one that embodies the flat ‘patchwork,’ or layered patterning, that is so characteristic of the Nabi aesthetic,” Smithgall told The Washington Diplomat in an email. “The scene is likely inspired by a family gathering at Bonnard’s grandmother’s home in Le Grand-Lemps.”
It’s a gorgeous, gloriously unexpected image that I haven’t been able to shake, especially after comparing it to his better-known, but less inventive “Goûter au jardin” following the show. Smithgall notes that in considering the evolution of that image to the one on display at the Phillips, “one glimpses Bonnard’s distillation of the motif into a more decorative, abstract arrangement of forms. In the latter, Bonnard has built up the scene fluidly with a more subdued palette of greens, yellows, reds and whites in which the figures literally blend into the surrounding beautiful garden of hydrangeas.”
Félix Vallotton’s “Passerby” also stuns in person, with the luminous orbs in the windows highlighting the magnificent deep purple cape on display. It’s on the museum’s advertising for the show, but if you’ve seen it, it doesn’t capture this small, powerful work. Evocative, urban, mysterious, it’s a truly memorable piece of art.
“This, the first show dedicated to the Nabis in more than 20 years and the first one in Washington, D.C., presents rarely seen works from one of the finest private collections of Nabi art in the United States,” Smithgall noted. “The Nabis aspired to ‘link art with life,’ and we sincerely hope the exhibition will reignite those connections for our visitors.”
Bonnard to Vuillard: The Intimate Poetry of Everyday Life–The Nabi Collection of Vicki and Roger Sant
through Jan. 26
1600 21st St., NW
For more information, please call (202) 387-2151 or visit www.phillipscollection.org
About the Author
Mackenzie Weinger (@mweinger) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.