It's not too often that a painter takes on the role of interior decorator. Whistler and his famed "Peacock Room," done for the London shipping magnate Frederick Leyland's dining pleasure in 1876, and one or two others by other artists (such as John Singer Sargent) were notable exceptions. Most painters, then and now, would consider such a calling beneath them. And, indeed, many painters today would simply lack the knack. But such was not the case with a group of late nineteenth century artist called the Nabis (pronounced NOB-ee). One of their number summed up their feelings by saying, "There are no paintings, just decoration." Few artists today think about their work in such a manner and it's likely even fewer would proclaim it. Yet, except for some ungainly monstrosities which would only fit in the vast spaces of a museum, and some truly ugly protest pieces, the vast majority of all art work done now, as in the past, is meant to decorate the walls or interior spaces in which we live, work, and play.
In another era, the Nabis would have been muralists. But in turn of the century Paris, life already moved at a pace that made such work much too permanent. So, the Nabis painted cycles. Basically the were polyptyches - large scale paintings conceived and rendered in multiple parts, intended to hang adjacent or near one another, sometimes filling the entire wall space of a given room. The lavish Paris apartments of the time with their high ceilings and vast interior wall spaces made ideal environments for such efforts. And the Nabis, artists such as Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard, Maurice Denis, and Albert Roussel, excelled at such installations. Their working in such a manner was not without good reason, for seldom did their initial groupings last for more than a decade or two. Times changed, tastes were fickle, and such art often represented a considerable financial investment. Moreover, being painted in sections as they were, inevitably made it easy for groupings to be taken down and sold in parts, never to be seen again as intended by their artists...until now.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has recently mounted a show called "Beyond the Easel," which reunited many of these long-separated kindred spirits for the first time in almost a hundred years. Bonnard's Mediterranean triptych dating from 1911 is a perfect example, demonstrating once more that the whole is often more than the sum of its parts. Originally painted for the stair landing in the Moscow residence of art collector Ivan Morosov, the three, brilliant, romantic panels have been reunited for the first time since the Russian Revolution, displayed between four gigantic half-columns just as they were originally. Only the grand staircase is missing (even the Met has its limits).
Just as spectacular is Maurice Denis' "Decorations for the Bedroom of a Young Girl", dating from between 1895 and 1900. Denis covered all the walls of the young lady's room with a fantasy depiction that creates a fairy-tale existence delicately hovering between childhood and young womanhood. He even painted a folding screen in the same style and theme, which adds a three-dimensional element to the visual experience. And, while Denis literally takes over an entire room, a Vuillard - an elongated, frieze-like composition called The Album - undoubtedly dominated the show, despite its more limited scale and subtle floral designs. Curators have even gone so far as to recreate the same floral wallpaper pattern that originally accompanied the work.
Maybe the Nabis had the right idea. Maybe painters today should relax their prejudices and decorate more often.