Gauguin, Bonnard, Denis


Every three or four years the directors of both the State Hermitage and the Hermitage Amsterdam discuss future exhibition ideas. The Amsterdam team is sometimes advised about the Hermitage collections by a team of Dutch specialists. Over the years this group has been changed and expanded. At first, the people contributing to it were Prof. dr. Henk van Os, former general director of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam; dr. Jan Fontein, former general director of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and specialist on Asian civilizations; and Wim Crouwel, one of the Netherlands best industrial designers and former director of the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam.

It was Henk van Os who came up with the idea of an exhibition of the Nabi painters. This small late 19th century group of young French painters is scarcely represented in Dutch collections: their artwork is little known but very much worth seeing. They formed a group from 1888 until 1895-96. At the start the members were Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard, Maurice Denis, Félix Vallotton and Ker-Xavier Roussel. Their friend Paul Sérusier joined the group a bit later. They played an interesting role in art history since they worked on a new way of painting. Photography had been invented, and Kodak had just brought a new cheap and easy-to-use camera on the market. Now everyone could make pictures; it was no longer a privilege for the rich and famous. Photography created a new approach to the art of painting. Painting was no longer needed to depict reality, since a camera could do the trick. Thus artists looked for other ways to give the art of painting a new meaning. 

This young ambitious group started calling themselves les Nabis, the Hebrew word nabi meaning "prophet". They used the name in a playful, non-serious way and gave each other nicknames containing the word Nabi, e.g. Maurice Denis was called le Nabi aux belles icons (the prophet of the beautiful images), Vallotton le Nabi zouave (the strange prophet). But they wanted to change the way people, including artists, looked at the art of painting.  The Nabi group theorized: "Remember that a picture, before being a battle horse, a nude, or some anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order." (Maurice Denis in "Definition du neo-traditionisme," Art et Critique, 1890). Their approach was to use unmixed colors and to separate these by contours. The paintings therefore almost look like two-dimensional instead of three-dimensional illusions, somewhat similar to the later cartoons. But soon they would be overtaken by modernist painters like Picasso and Matisse. The Nabi painters also liked decorative painting which they considered as worthy a branch of art as other painting. They decorated many official buildings as well as private houses, in France as well as other countries including Russia and the United States.

Morozov and le Nabi

The exhibition in Amsterdam focuses on two aspects: the Nabi painters as a group of friends and colleagues, and the Russian love for their art. It was mainly the Moscow tradesman and industrial Ivan Morozov (1871-1921) who collected paintings of the Nabi group. Denis and Bonnard were among his favorites. In 1907 he bought his first Denis painting, Bacchus and Ariadne, straight from the artist`s easel. And here he found the artist whom he later asked to decorate his Music Room as a gift to his wife who loved music and was a singer. She would be able to hold recitals in it. As the main theme Denis thought of the Story of Amor and Psyche, a classic love story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and suitable as a gift, which that Music Room was.

The Story of Amor and Psyche is told in seven canvases and six decorative panels. The decoration is highly effective in its original setting and dimensions. It is for this reason that the Hermitage Amsterdam made a ‘reconstruction’ of the room using the original heights of Morozov’s Music Room in his mansion in Moscow. This room is now one of the top pieces of the exhibition Gauguin, Bonnard, Denis, A Russian Taste for French Art.

Denis was commissioned by Morozov in spring 1907, and spent the summer in Italy where he made hundreds of sketches of the Italian landscape to be used in his paintings. In September 1908, the first five canvases were sent to Moscow, where they were installed in November. In January 1909, Denis visited Morozov home and was slightly disappointed by the grey color of the walls. But he was "pleasantly surprised" that the paintings still looked bright and colorful, with a certain grandeur. He decided to paint two extra paintings, showing Psyche’s departure from her family, and Amor bringing Psyche to Mount Olympus. Six decorative paintings would finish the composition. He painted these seven as soon as he arrived back in Paris. In autumn 1909 they were sent to Moscow. Morozov paid 70,000 French francs for Denis’ work, an enormous sum in that day.

Bonnard’s Mediterranée  Triptych  

Morozov felt happy with the result, and a few months later he decided to have another empty space decorated: the wall halfway up the grand staircase. He wanted a pleasant view and commissioned Pierre Bonnard through the art gallery Bernheim Jeune in Paris to make a decoration for it. Bonnard was sent photographs and measurements of the space, and he painted a triptych with a view of the Mediterranean Sea. The artist was used to painting folding screens and so had no difficulty in dividing a composition into three parts. The scene shows a woman and children in a garden which overlooks the sea. Bonnard was very fond of Japanese art and was influenced by it and the trees look Japanese in style. Bonnard was called le Nabi très Japonard by his fellow artists. He never saw the triptych installed, but his paintings fit perfectly in the space. The view is sunny and cheerful. The people in the painting make it sweet and lovely and give it a charming informality, a contrast with the strong and powerful architecture of the grand staircase. The trees, almost Japanese in style, are theatrical and exuberant, as decorative as the art nouveau and give the garden a cultivated character.

Morozov was delighted and commissioned Bonnard to paint more. He painted two more paintings with a seasonal theme to finish the decoration of the staircase, Early Spring in the Country and Autumn, Fruit Harvesting. All the canvases fitted very well and the pictures complemented the architecture, showing Bonnard’s extraordinary talent in decorative painting. 

In 1917, after the Soviet nationalization of the private collections, Ivan Morozov`s mansion became the second Museum of New Western Art – the first one being the collection of Sergey Shchukin – until both museums were finally closed by Stalin in 1948. The three paintings of the Mediterranée finally came to the Hermitage collection,and the other paintings from the staircase went to the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.

Morozov collected more works by Bonnard. He was fond of his work. Some of these paintings have become favorites of visitors to the State Hermitage Museum, like Morning in Paris and Evening in Paris, signed and dated 1911. These pictures show a totally different approach to painting. I already mentioned that photography caused a new way of looking at art, but here we find also a new way of looking at composition. It shows people cut off, like a quick snapshot taken in the streets of Paris. This is completely new in the history of art. It would never happen in old paintings, unless the canvas had been cut for a reason. But a painter would never paint people with half bodies or cut-off faces, as Bonnard did. This creates a new experience as well: the longer you look at his paintings the more you feel surrounded by them. The blur of some details in Bonnard’s paintings have the effect of making it seem that you are seeing the scene from the corner of your eye: you suddenly "discover" details that you had not seen before. This gives his paintings a vividness which was totally new in art. In that sense the Nabi painters were real "prophets" of a new art. But unfortunately they were surpassed by the younger generation of artists like Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, who led modern art into the twentieth century.

Vincent Boele

curator of exhibitions at the Hermitage Amsterdam