The Prophets of Profit

How artists can slyly critique their wealthy patrons.

No one, to my knowledge, has yet written a history of artists and the people who commission and pay for their art. But when such a study does get put together one day, the relationship between the Nabis and their wealthy Parisian benefactors—usually rich Jews of German or Russian descent—will make an especially vivid chapter.

The Nabis, the subject of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s wonderful exhibition “Beyond the Easel: Decorative Painting by Bonnard, Vuillard, Denis, and Roussel },” were a group of painters active in Paris from about 1890 to 1930. They included two world-class painters—Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard—and two minor ones—Maurice Denis and Ker Xavier Roussel. On the surface, their work was, well, all surface. Denis summed up their aesthetic in one renowned sentence: “A picture—before being a war horse, a female nude, or some anecdote—is essentially a flat surface covered with colors in a particular order.” The Nabis aimed primarily to make art that would neither provoke the intellect nor vex the emotions. At least these were their publicly stated intentions. On closer examination, they seemed to be up to something more.

For one thing, the Nabis may have concerned themselves with surface, but their work wasn’t superficial. Though they abandoned the easel in favor of painting on Japanese screens and on ceramics, and though they often applied themselves directly to living-room walls, they animated their work with dreamy, sometimes haunting layers of symbolism. They also worked in opposition to the Impressionists, banning the portrayal of natural light from their work and exaggerating the insignificance of the Impressionists’ human figures to the point where, in the Nabis’ pictures, the figures sometimes blend into the wallpaper. “Nabi” means “prophet” in Hebrew, and besides using the allusion to appeal to their Jewish patrons, the four painters thought of themselves as being in the vanguard of their time.

Not everybody agreed. Degas couldn’t stand them. The label “decorative” brought out fear and contempt among hard-core modernists: Since simplicity can be misconstrued as superficiality, to call modernist art decorative is like flinging its worst fear into its face. In the eyes of their critics, what the Nabis considered painterly refinements were acts of esthetic grossness. The fact that their works adorned the apartments, mansions, and villas of Paris’ haute-bourgeoisie didn’t add to the Nabis’ popularity among the modernists, either.           

A preoccupation with the Nabis’ patrons’ wealth also shapes the Met’s presentation of the show, as well as some prominent critical reactions to it. The New York Times’ Holland Cotter wrote: “Concocted for well-heeled homes,” the Nabis’ creations were “promotional statements about social stability, collective prosperity, collective prosperity … inert, closed-in, exhausted.” It was decorative art that was merely “soothing,” not “shocking.” The Met’s wall texts also stressed the art’s decorativeness to the exclusion of its deeper qualities, though in a spirit of admiration, not hostility, going on at length about the lavish existence of the Nabis’ patrons. Perhaps Cotter was crankily responding less to the show than to some of the more complacent aspects of prosperity. Perhaps the Met’s commentary was, in its good-natured way, reflecting one of those complacent aspects, describing the opulence of the Nabis’ work in lush shelter-magazine terms.

But the Nabis’ art could be read, to a great extent, as a sly commentary on their patrons’ taste. If you look closely at some of these paintings, you’ll notice a wry, ingenious playfulness. One of the first paintings that greet you as you enter the exhibition is Bonnard’s Woman in a Garden: Woman in a Checked Dress. Painted on a narrow, vertical panel, the picture represents a woman against a background of leaves and general greenery, with two other female figures in the near distance. But this is not any kind of recognizable garden. Several of the leaves, unattached to branches, appear superimposed over the dress’s checkered pattern. The lower part of the dress seems to grow out of a fork in the tree at the bottom of the painting; leaves and tree are in the process of becoming fabric. To top it all off, the white hat, partly laid over with leaves—one of them heart-shaped—is so abstract that it looks more like a jagged patch of sky shaped into a hat. And the two women in the distance are rendered against a green expanse so oddly speckled with yellow that it seems embroidered rather than painted. Indeed, the entire garden is one-dimensional, stuck onto the background the way the dress is stuck onto the woman’s figure. The painting transforms nature into a thing. This is a garden you might find on a rack in Saks.

As you walk through the show you notice how the Nabis have frozen nature into a commodity. In Denis’The Muses, which portrays a group of women in a forest, some sitting and some standing, the ground is literally rendered as an oriental rug. Vuillard’s Under the Trees is even more defiantly playful. The painting is divided horizontally by a mass of foliage, whose bisecting border Vuillard represents as the fringe of a dress. Artificial, acquirable things, Vuillard seems to be saying, have replaced the Romantics’ and the Impressionists’ trees and valleys, rivers and seas.

Vuillard’s Vanity Table is a portrait of a woman at her vanity table, but in this, as in several other works, he has titled his painting not after her but after her physical possession. The solitary figure on the right side of the painting is barely distinguishable from the dense subdued brilliance of the wallpaper, the flowers, the tablecloth underneath the flowers, the vanity table itself. The feeling such works evoke is, first, one of serenity, even comfort; and then a sensation of emptiness, loss, and nostalgia. It is as if you are watching a room become a memory of the people who once inhabited it at the same time as the people themselves slowly disappear from the room.

By the end of the show, by the time you have seen Bonnard depicting his human figures in hues of purple and green and pink, just like his bottles and vases, you get the feeling that the Nabis had a high time at the end of the day, sitting in a cafe and laughing over their guileful last word. It is as if they were saying to their benefactors: Do you want to escape the outside world to your haute-bourgeois apartment-castles? We will give you a world in which nothing exists but your interiors. Do you want to accumulate things, and more things? We will show you a world of only things. Do you want an art that might offer you a portal back to all that is natural in life, which you have lost? We will give you an art that is entirely artificial, so that you may long for what you have lost. The biblical prophets, after all, were great chastisers of convention and of material excess.

You could say that the Nabis not only pulled the rug out from underneath the rival artistic styles of late Romanticism and Impressionism. They also, for all their gratitude to their patrons, pulled their benefactors’ pretensions out from underneath their rugs. In this way, the Nabis snatched artistic triumph from the jaws of their material success.