I often marvel at the power that French painters from the late 19th century have over me. It doesn’t matter why I am going to a museum or what show I am there to see. If I pass by a French painting made between about 1870 and 1900, my eyes start, my chest swells, my feet go heavy and I have no choice but to stop and look — even if just for a moment.
Thankfully, I don’t seem to be alone in this trance-like affliction of affection. Impressionism and Post-Impressionism are not exactly insider secrets of the art world.
There is something precious and revelatory about that moment in art history, something that can never really happen again. It was the moment that a generation of artists discovered a new way to depict the world in color, value and shape, which at once glorified the world around them and dealt an irrecoverable blow to the classical pursuit of art as a faithful representation of life.
The artists in the nexus of that moment were about as liberated as an artist can ever be. It wasn’t just that they could paint whatever they wanted however they wanted. It was also that — for a brief period — every time they did anything, it was almost as if for the first time.
Now at the Phillips Collection, “Bonnard to Vuillard: The Intimate Poetry of Everyday Life,” on view through Jan. 26, explores the tail end of Post-Impressionism through the Nabis, a group of painters that constituted the last great movement of this era. In the exhibition, rarely seen works by some of the group’s leading figures — including Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard, Maurice Denis and Paul Ranson — exemplify how the Nabis employed flat colors, decorative patterning and silhouetted forms to convey their responses to the world.
Lest we get too entangled in a narrative of doe-eyed revolutionaries, it is worth noting that the name “Nabis,” which the group gave itself around 1891, comes from the Hebrew word for prophet. Their visionary approach — both acclaimed, loathed and self-professed — asserted the primacy of form and color as abstract equivalents of human feeling. The Nabis’ emphasis on an artistic language of suggestion was in sympathy with the ideals of Symbolist writers, poets and musicians, with whom they closely collaborated.
During their short-lived yet fertile period of collaboration, the Nabis created a wide range of imagery, from the mystical to the mundane, the witty to the sardonic. In seeking to break down what they saw as artificial barriers between the fine and decorative arts, they explored the “poetry of everyday life” as it played out in living rooms, on street corners and in gardens and landscapes.
It is fair to say that many of these paintings are odd, garish, deformed and unattractive. In Vuillard’s “Interior with Red Bed or The Bridal Chamber” of 1893, it is impossible not to notice the bulbous, jack-o’-lantern face of the central figure or the overwhelming, sickly yellow tone that pervades the entire painting. At the same time, it exhibits a surprising lack of vanity for a painter. There is a kind of bravery and vigor in Vuillard’s willingness to let certain elements of his painting fail, and to give primacy to sheer experimental creativity over polish, finish or attractiveness.
The subject itself is also in bold defiance of the era’s reigning academic conventions. The Academy, which controlled the lion’s share of the market as well as critical influence, was still focused on grand historic and religious subjects. The Nabis romanticized the temporal intimacy of middle-class life: listless drawing room scenes, interstitial moments between children and nannies, the backside of conversational huddles along a boulevard.
Coupled with this appeal to the beauty of the mundane was an altogether different but equally progressive integration of graphic design principles into the arena of fine art. Probably no artist balanced these two influences throughout his work as did Bonnard. One of the great draftsmen of his era, he spent decades paring down his landscape and interior paintings to near formless tapestries of soft color and light. However, in other circumstances, his sense of line, composition and design was sharp as a razor’s edge.
In paintings like “Interior with Screen,” “Afternoon in the Garden” and “Scene with Red Rooftops,” the delineation between planes of space is nearly obliterated, as the world might look through a foggy window at dawn.
Then there is his three-paneled screen, “Stork and Four Frogs,” which opens the exhibition, and a study for a poster he made for La Revue blanche, an avant-garde Parisian periodical. Drawing influence from Japanese ukiyo-e prints, European graphic design and typography, they are radiantly sharp compositions. It is exhilarating. Rarely do you get to see Bonnard cranking his design sensibility up to a 10; he almost always seems to be reining himself in, denying himself the power of line and value that came to him so naturally.
By 1900, the Nabis had begun to part ways, and their art developed in various directions. Their innovative experiments would exert an influence on the development of 20th-century abstract art that can still be felt and seen today — as visitors to the other galleries at the Phillips can experience for themselves.
Bonnard to Vuillard: The Intimate Poetry of Everyday Life
Through Jan. 26
The Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW
Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Thursday until 8:30 p.m.)
Sunday, noon to 6:30 p.m.
$12 adults, $10 seniors and students, 18 and under free