Flowers on the Wall

In nineteenth-century france, artists of high ambition sometimes expressed impatience with easel painting. Wasn’t the result just another bourgeois possession? A pretty trifle to hang in a middle-class room? The art of painting, many artists believed, ought to have grander aspirations. It should embody the eternal truths of history and myth and join with architecture and the decorative arts to create integrated environments that reflected the profound dreams of humanity. When modernists eventually revolted against academic history painting, they did not uniformly abandon this august dream. There were some who, while admiring the radical experiments of the Impressionists, found their brilliant daubings limited in outlook.

Beyond the Easel: Decorative Painting by Bonnard, Vuillard, Denis, and Roussel, 1890-1930 – a beautiful and fascinating show of paintings and folding screens that opened last week at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – celebrates an effort by a circle of French modernists to enlarge Impressionist art. It is an important show partly because it helps rescue certain painters, particularly Vuillard and Bonnard, from the common view that they are just belated Impressionists. To the contrary, the painters often called the Nabis sought to create a new world that could provide an alternative to soulless industrial society. They shifted the lofty idealism of traditional history painting – which was often intended for public buildings – into a private realm of home, garden, and friends. Their art implied a kind of Proustian preserve where, it was hoped, the higher faculties could still flourish. In a way, they hoped to domesticate paradise.

While studying the Impressionists close at hand, the Nabis sought their inspiration in the faraway. They loved the stylish flair and otherworldly air of Japanese prints, and though not as attracted to the medieval as the English of the time were, they found in the rococo of the eighteenth century an imaginative world as complete and delightfully remote in spirit. Its charm, playfulness, wit, and reverie were equally an antidote to industrial society. They dreamed of making large decorative panels that filled a room and enveloped the senses. There was to be none of the detachment and feeling of separation that came from standing back and staring at an easel painting. If the Nabis seem more sober than the artists of the rococo – the women no longer flirt but are lost in thought – their quiet garden is equally lush.

Of course, the Metropolitan and the Art Institute of Chicago – which organized the exhibit in collaboration with the Met – could not re-create the actual rooms for which some of these pictures were designed. But they have reunited works that were intended to be seen together, and some pictures have the scale of murals. Many people will be surprised to find that Vuillard, a man of the drawing room, could paint so expansively. His monumental Window Overlooking the Woods does two very different and important things to enrich the imagination. If you do not look directly at the picture, it becomes a kind of warming wall for a room, a tapestry of carefully stitched colors that creates a mood of close reflection. If you look directly into the painting, however, it deepens into a great panorama – opening up the room, bringing nature inside, and inviting you to flights of fancy.

The Eden created by these artists has historically been overshadowed because it stands between two deeper and more full-blooded dreams of paradise. Gauguin and Matisse let something wonderfully savage into their respective gardens: In Matisse’s brazen rhythms and in Gauguin’s glum and sinuous luminosity, there is some memory of the serpent. But the unembarrassed joy that the Nabis took in the thoughtful play of paint is paradise enough in our own time, when art seems so starved of pleasure. And Bonnard, in particular, can stand comparison with anyone. “Beyond the Easel” ends with a strong Bonnard, Mediterranean, which consists of three large panels positioned between columns that the artist painted for the home of a Moscow collector. The curators are presenting the work complete with columns, and the exhibition room itself is steeped in natural light. The invitation to sun and sea – glimpsed through the formal columns – is rapturous. No photograph could convey the sweet savor of the Mediterranean as this painting does: the leafy play, the sun splashes, the cool shadows. A woman sits on a bench. Children play on the ground. There is a cat and a parrot. The distant sea is brightened by a red flag, and Bonnard’s brush is full of breezes.

William Kentridge, now at the new Museum of Contemporary Art, is a survey of the work of a white South African who blends and crosses many boundaries of art and politics. He is a theatrical artist, a director-draftsman who makes animated films based upon his own drawings. He does not create numerous images, as traditional animators do, but instead works and reworks a few core drawings during the filming. The final state of a drawing is also exhibited. In most of his hand animations, Kentridge intertwines images of the explosive politics of South Africa with the lives of three fictitious characters: a wealthy mogul named Soho Eckstein; his romantic alter ego, Felix Teitlebaum; and Eckstein’s wife (who is seduced by Teitlebaum). The archetypal story line is predictable and hackneyed – Eckstein is a piggy mogul with a big cigar – but the visual character of the actual animations has a mesmerizing power. In Kentridge’s work, the drawings seem to make and unmake themselves on their own. There is no controlling authority, no divine hand. A cat fizzles into a bomb, streets bloom with demonstrators, numbers do their own figuring. The world becomes a place of ceaseless metamorphosis where distinctions between public and private quickly dissolve. Kentridge skillfully keeps his animations primitive. They move the way early Expressionist films do. You feel the tremor in the hand and the flicker in the light. That is what brings South Africa into focus.

Beyond the Easel
At the Metropolitan Museum of Art; through 9/9.
William Kentridge
At the New Museum of Contemporary Art; through 9/16.

Flowers on the Wall