More than a century ago, these painters found calm in an age of distraction

Sebastian Smee

THE WASHINGTON POST – The pictures of the Nabis – an affiliation of late 19th Century artists that included Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard – conjure up various moods opposed to distraction. Do I mean attention? Not that, exactly. Attention (“Listen up!”) can be brief and focussed. But in the paintings of the Nabis, time – instead of splintering, as it does in distracted states – fans out like evening fog, from damp twilight until the lamp-lit hours before bed.

Inside a picture by Vuillard, for instance, quiet reigns, measured by the soft rustle of curtains and the sound of spoons stirring tea. Maybe a muffled sigh, a distant clip-clop of horses or an embroiderer’s “tsk tsk”. You lean in, the better to make out what you’re seeing, but it isn’t easy. Someone begins reading poetry out loud in the corner, and the words wash over you. Your eye roams from an old aunt’s striped dress to the floral wallpaper and the azalea bush moving against the window outside . . .

The Phillips Collection’s winter show, Bonnard to Vuillard: The Intimate Poetry of Everyday Life, creates something like this atmosphere, with the happy qualification that there is no reciting of poetry. It’s a relatively small show, occasioned by a promised gift of Nabi works by collectors Vicki and Roger Sant.

Vicki Sant, who died last year at 79, was one of Washington’s beloved philanthropists. She was the first non-family chair of the board at the Phillips, and a chair of the board at the National Gallery of Art. She and Roger, 88, whose wealth derives from the global energy company Applied Energy Services, fell in love with the Nabis at a 1993 exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris.

Nabis was adopted in 1888 by a small group of young artists – among them Bonnard, Paul Sérusier and Maurice Denis – for their self-proclaimed “brotherhood”. Vuillard joined them a few years later. Other members included Aristide Maillol, Paul Ranson, Ker-Xavier Roussel and Félix Vallotton. The group disbanded in 1899.

Maurice Denis, ‘Les Musiciennes (Musicians)’, 1895. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
Édouard Vuillard, ‘Intérieur au lit rouge ou La chambre nuptiale (Interior with Red Bed or The Bridal Chamber)’, 1893
Édouard Vuillard, ‘Mère et enfant (Mother and Child)’, 1901

“Bonnard to Vuillard” contains paintings, prints, stained glass, tapestry, ceramics, posters and screens. The range of items, which also extended into commercial art, book illustration and stage scenery, demonstrates the Nabis’ desire – part of a wider 19th Century phenomenon linked to the Arts and Crafts movement and resuscitated in the 20th Century by the Bauhaus – to erase distinctions between interior decoration, craft and fine art. They wanted to make art you could live with and domestic interiors that were – without feeling too precious – art.

A typical Nabi painting is characterised by real-world scenes transposed into flat shapes that subdivide a flattened overall design – not unlike a stained-glass window or carpet design, but with less symmetry and a gorgeously hesitant painterly touch. The Nabi painters and printmakers were influenced by the flattened forms and archaic aura of the neoclassical muralist Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and by Paul Gauguin. Dispensing with the assumption that a proper painting should be like a window onto the world (which meant first defenestrating modelling and perspective) they emphasised instead the flat, decorative surface of their pictures. The results are small, enigmatic and airless, like icons.

The Nabis were part of the wider phenomenon of Symbolism, the aesthetic movement that emerged out of German Idealism and swept through all the arts in the late 19th Century. The Symbolists favoured poetry and suggestion over the coarse explicitness of naturalistic illusionism. The first thing every new modern movement tries to destroy is the movement that came before. So the Nabis rejected, above all, Impressionism which, although it had only been around for 20 years, was, in the Nabis’ estimation, fatally limited.

Where Impressionism cleaved to the world’s physical appearances – especially in daylight – Symbolists liked evening and artificial light. They could not look at a painting without projecting musical qualities onto it; nor could they hear music that didn’t express colors they associated with particular emotions and states of mind.

If you want to understand the emergence of abstract art, you need to read what the Nabis said about picture-making.

“Understand a painting as a sum of chords,” wrote Vuillard in his diary, “once and for all break away from any naturalist idea”.

“The main subject of painting,” wrote Bonnard, “is the surface, which has its colours and its laws beyond its objects.”

Most famous of all (it is the statement most frequently offered as the rationale behind abstraction), Denis wrote: “It should be remembered that a picture – before being a warhorse, or an anecdote of some sort – is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.”

The Nabis stopped short, however, of total abstraction. You can feel the ropes linking their work and the real world loosening, but they remain attached. Their pictures carry the poetry of the things they represent.

What are those things? There are exceptions, but most of the works at the Phillips depict interiors, sedate street scenes and domestic gardens. In the handful of works by Vuillard, both the abstract patterning and the absence of modelling cause the borders between the picture’s separate elements to evanesce. Figures silhouetted against lamplight in tight interiors appear to merge with background wallpaper and nearby furniture.

Vuillard and Bonnard are known to art history not only as Nabis but also as “Intimistes”. The label is evocative. When you are looking at a Vuillard, in particular, the feeling of ongoing discovery approaches the mysteriousness of making love in the dark. Only their airlessness reminds you you’re dreaming.

It’s easy to see why contemporary painters of feelings, memories and sundry Proustian sensations – Howard Hodgkin, especially – like Vuillard so much. I like him, too. There are no masterpieces by him in this show (Vuillard was not a “masterpiece” kind of artist) but there is a gorgeous portrait of the artist’s mother in profile, another of the cushioned face of a sleeping woman and a third painting, “Interior with Red Bed” (also know as “The Bridal Chamber”). All are like wrapped presents, unopened love letters, or cream poured into black coffee. Their delights are anticipatory. They richly reward your unfocussed attention.