There is a surge of emotion when a long-lost brother and sister are reunited—a thrill at least as old as Orestes and Electra—which can be shared by onlookers who have nothing to do with the family in question.
“Beyond the easel”, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, takes as its bold task the presentation of cycles of paintings by Bonnard, Vuillard, Denis and Roussel, which have long been separated, and, in most cases, never publicly exhibited as a group.
Although many of these works were painted less than 100 years ago, they were often dispersed within a few years of their creation. The scale of many of the panels, made for affluent apartments in turn-of-the-century Paris, proved no obstacle to their removal, and in some cases even seems to have sped up the process of dispersal, when their colour, or style or size did not fit the decorative requirements of the owner’s new residence.
By the time the four protagonists of this exhibition had died, all of them during the 1940s, hardly a single one of their many interior schemes was still installed in its original location.
The challenge facing the curators of the exhibition was, therefore, no ordinary one, and it has been magnificently surmounted, in a display which is enthralling from start to finish and overflowing with new discoveries.
Gloria Groom, David and Mary Winton Green, curator at the Art Institute of Chicago (co-curator with Rebecca Rabinow of the Metropolitan Museum, New York) had dreamt of such a show well over 10 years ago. Dr Winton Green’s 1993 book on Vuillard acted as a significant milestone, but here we are fully able to appreciate both the common ideals and the widely divergent personalities of these four members of the Nabi group, during the 1890s and beyond. “There are no paintings, only decoration”, was how another of the Nabis, Jan Verkade, summarised the group’s revolutionary intentions. This show allows us, for the first time, to begin to appreciate how successfully they realised this aim.
While other recent exhibitions of the Nabis, as individuals or as a group, have of necessity consisted predominantly of smaller works, “Beyond the easel” allows us to experience the artists at full stretch and we find them flexing not only their ideological muscle, demonstrating their belief in the primacy of decoration, but fully exercising their brush-wielding arms, as they cover large areas of canvas with sunlit open-air picnics or serene nocturnal tête-à-têtes.
With most of the rooms in the exhibition given over to a single scheme, or a single artist, it is possible for the visitor to become immersed in the mood created by a series of paintings.
These harmonies of colour and shape are especially evident in Maurice Denis’ “Decorations for the bedroom of a young girl” (1895-1900), an adolescent fantasy that hovers between fairy-tale and mature womanhood. The inclusion in the exhibition of the painted screen made to accompany the wall panels brings the static decoration further into the viewer's space and heightens the sense of physical involvement. This is one of many instances of the installation playing on the illusions generated by the work.
Sometimes the strong wall colours threatened to overwhelm the delicate harmonies of the paintings, but with Bonnard’s four-metre-high “Mediterranean” triptych of 1911, the effect is stunning. Painted for the Moscow residence of the renowned collector Ivan Morosov, these panels originally stood on the half-landing of a grand staircase, where they were framed by four gigantic half-columns. The columns have been recreated, but it was, alas, beyond the power of the museum to give us the staircase, and with it the entrancing experience of approaching Bonnard’s sunlit terrace either from below or above, but never actually standing still in front of it, as we do here. The most striking recreative coup of the show is however reserved for Vuillard, the artist who rightly emerges as its greatest star. His series of frieze-like compositions, “The album”, is displayed against a dense, stylised floral wallpaper, recently identified from pattern books in Rouen as the very one which adorned the Paris apartment of Thadée Nathanson, co-proprietor of La Revue Blanche and one of Vuillard’s most ardent patrons and supporters.
This wallpaper is visible in many of Vuillard’s own photographs of the apartment and he incorporates it in several paintings of the interior. The reprinted paper recaptures the exact tone of warm pale apricot that is a constant in Vuillard’s paintings of it, revealing at once his acute sensitivity to nuances of colour and the daring juxtaposition he must have envisaged with the “Album” series, whose dominant colour is a glowing crimson. If the effect is slightly jarring to modern eyes, perhaps it needed the softening influence of gaslight fully to conjure up the visual and psychological blur Vuillard desired.
Some exhibitions actually look better in the catalogue than in the gallery; “Beyond the easel” is quite the reverse, and the physical encounter with these large works proves beyond doubt the importance of the decorative ideal within the careers of these artists. If fears about the fragility of many other dispersed cycles, not included here, can be allayed by this highly successful exhibition, perhaps we may yet look forward to more happy reunions in the future.
“Beyond the easel: decorative painting by Bonnard, Vuillard, Denis and Roussel, 1890-1930”, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York 10028, % +1 212 879 5500, fax +1 212 570 3879 (until 9 September). Catalogue by Gloria Groom, Nicholas Watkins, Jennifer Paoletti and Thérèse Barruel (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2001), 304 pp, 145 b/w ills, 104 col. ills, £50 (hb) ISBN 0300089252
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as '"There are no paintings, just decoration"'