Beyond the Easel (Art Institute, Chicago, till 16 May)
It was not so long ago that one of the worst things you could say about a work of art was that it was 'decorative'. The adverb 'merely' was always silently supplied and the overall judgment was one of supreme dismissiveness. Art that was (merely) decorative was thought to lack some essential aesthetic vitamin. It might be pleasing, but it did not move one in any fundamental way. It might be 'pretty' (another key weapon in the lexicon of existential diminishment), but certainly not profound, agreeable, not challenging. In short, decorative art was art that was not really important.
One of the many virtues of this engaging exhibition, Beyond the Easel: Decorative Painting by Bonnard, Vuillard, Denis & Roussel, 1890-1930 (which will be seen at the Metropolitan Museum in New York after it closes in Chicago), is to remind us of how shallow such imputations of shallowness are. The four artists this show focuses on were friends and almost exact contemporaries. They lived from the late 1860s to the early 1940s (1947 in the case of Bonnard), and their art provides a bridge from the classicising experiments of Puvis de Chavannes to the exuberant Modernism of Matisse.
Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard, Maurice Denis and Ker Xavier Roussel were part of a loosely knit group known as the `Nabi' — Hebrew for 'prophet'. But that portentous label concealed their chief accomplishment, which was distinctly, indeed gorgeously, aesthetic. Deeply impressed by the vivid colour of Gauguin and the expressive simplicities of Japanese art, they embraced decoration as a rallying cry, a liberation from an academic tradition that featured the rhetoric of heroism and morality but seemed to come up rather short on aesthetic delight.
The results were mixed. Maurice Denis was in many ways the chief spokesman for the Nabis. but he was also the most saccharine and heavy-handed of the bunch. His statement that 'It is well to remember that a picture, before being a war-horse, nude, or some other subject, is essentially a flat surface covered with lines and colour arranged in a particular fashion' was both declaration of independence and an aesthetic challenge that he did not always live up to. His penchant for quasi-mystical effusion fired his imagination but did not necessarily come to the aid of his art. Denis tended to be at his best when he was at his most casual. In this exhibition, his 'Decorations for the Bedroom of a Young Girl' (commissioned by the Siegfried Bing, the great impresario for Japanese art in Paris) are far more fetching than his more ambitious, but also slightly preposterous, mythological scenes.
Something similar can be said about Roussel: a mid-sized talent who is perhaps most pleasing when seen in the midst of other artists. (It is curious how some artists are most impressive as side-dishes, accompaniments to larger, more central talents.)
The real core of this exhibition are the paintings — portraits, a few screens, several decorative panels originally commissioned for specific rooms — by Bonnard and Vuillard. The work of both artists is by now very well known, but this exhibition, in addition to many familiar items, shows objects that have scarcely been seen by the public. Of particular note are some of the screen paintings and 'Mediterranean' (1911), a huge triptych by Bonnard that was only recently excavated from the store rooms of the Hermitage. This sunny, delightful work was commissioned by the great Russian collector Ivan A. Morosov only to be expropriated by the Bolsheviks when Lenin came to power.
Among the old favourites in this exhibition are several paintings by Bonnard of his terrace at Vernon, including the spectacular one, painted in 1918, that is owned by the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC. Bonnard is at his most lush in these pictures, at once serene and evocative. Many viewers will also remember Vuillard's pictures 'Embroidering by a Window', from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and 'Woman in a Striped Dress', both 1895.
It was while working for the theatre that Vuillard developed his technique of peinture a Ia colle, painting with heated glue into which pigment had been mixed. Often he painted on unfinished cardboard. The process helped him achieve the lush surface and warm colours he loved, but it also proved to be a great danger for collectors. Attempting to brighten up his paintings, which had darkened with time, they not infrequently had them varnished. If the cardboard had been completely covered with paint, the varnish did no harm; but if there were any areas exposed, the varnish would soak into the cardboard, leaving dark brown spots that disfigured the painting forever.
Central to the Nabis' aesthetic was an effort to break down or at least attenuate the division between art and life. They sought to go 'beyond the easel' because they wanted to integrate the experience of art into the fabric of everyday life. Thus they turned to wall murals, posters, screens, and architectural ornamentation in an effort to bring art off the pedestal that they thought the easel erected.
What these artists were after, as Nicholas Watkins observes in his catalogue essay, was art that would encourage 'a mood of protective intimism'. The art of the Nabis, especially of Bonnard and Vuillard, is an intensely domestic art. This is what makes it inextricably decorative and what has led some observers to dismiss or at least undervalue their art: Bonnard's work may be pleasant, but is it deep? Vuillard's painting is undoubtedly fetching, but does it plumb the depths?
Art beyond the easel can really only be appreciated when one grasps the pointlessness of such questions. In 1908, Henri Matisse, one of the Nabis' chief beneficiaries, wrote that he dreamt of 'an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the business man as well as the man of letters ... something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue'. Contemporary taste tempts us to believe that Matisse was being ironical. It is one of the lessons of Beyond the Easel that such sentiments were not only in earnest, but also that they could provide the foundation for art of exceptionally high achievement.