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Saturday, April 30, 2011


As the twenty-first century plods on, we look back over the previous one and consider from whence and how far art as come in the last hundred years. The development has been staggering, especially in the first half of the century. But as we try and interpolate from our hindsight where art may be heading we see little but befuddlement. We realize that painting is not what it was a hundred years ago, either stylistically or in its standing among the other fine arts. Actually, there's little to suggest that it is, in fact, going anywhere in terms of developmental movement. If we feel as if we're standing in something of a haze in looking ahead, we are not alone. A hundred years ago artists and writers were in a similar situation. Much of the nineteenth century had been wasted on academic artistic pursuits, and that art which called itself Impressionism was still so new as to be considered barely legitimate. What we now call Post-Impressionism was looked upon as the wild rantings and ravings of madmen like Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Cezanne, all of whom were social outcasts suspected of being on the lam from the loony bin (which was pretty accurate in Van Gogh's case).

But these madmen were not without their influence, and the group who fell under that influence, while little known today, were in the forefront of those artists trying to pierce the fog and see where art at the turn of their century might be headed. They were called the Nabis (pronounced NOB-ee), and their number included a new generation who had grown up with Impressionism and assimilated the Post-Impressionism that came after it. Artists such as Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard, Maurice Denis, and the English artist, Walter Sickert, formed the group. The name was appropriate. It was Hebrew for seers or prophets, which was exactly what they attempted to be. In addition to Cezanne, Gauguin, and, to a lesser degree, Van Gogh, they were also influence by Japanese art, especially Bonnard and Vuillard.

Pierre Bonnard Self-Portrait, 1889
Bonnard was born in 1867, Vuillard, in 1868, at a time when Monet and Renoir were still dabbling on the banks of the Seine, feeling their way into Impressionism. Bonnard's painting style is reminiscent of Renoir's but with the brash color of Cezanne and the Japanese influence stirred into his compositions and choice of subject matter. Vuillard was even more Japanese, heavily into painting complex textile patterns into his intimate interiors populated by his mother (who was a seamstress) and her friends. Many, such as his 1896 painting The Reader, are so "busy" with detail the figures are almost lost in the melange. Matisse must have loved his work. Yet there is always a quiet rectitude, and solid compositional stability to his intricately detailed, Victorian decorations. The Nabis were not the vanguard of twentieth century art. Picasso, Matisse, and their friends quickly upstaged them, but they were a sort telescope through which the nineteenth century attempted to see into the twentieth, and though their vision wasn't particularly sharp, it nonetheless offered at least a glimpse of the cataclysmic changes that were to come.
The Reader, 1896, Edouard Vuillard

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