The intimate poetry of everyday life

I mentioned that this past weekend we saw an exhibit at The Phillips Collection, “Bonnard to Vuillard: The Intimate Poetry of Everyday Life.” The Phillips Collection has always been a favorite museum of mine — appealingly small, it makes for a manageable outing, and its collection is largely made up of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century works. Since our university partnered with the museum, we even get free admission!

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A selfie from a couple years ago — probably our last visit

Pierre Bonnard is one of my favorite artists and someone I discovered at the Phillips. My favorite painting,


“The Open Window” (1921), shows you what I like about Bonnard: his colors, domestic scenes, generally relaxing subjects, and windows. Nearly all of his paintings have them!

I always figured it was kind of unsophisticated of me to favor the Impressionists (with whom I had always lumped Bonnard), since what I like above all are paintings that are, basically, pretty. One thing I learned at this new exhibit is that Bonnard wasn’t technically an Impressionist, he was part of a group called the “Nabis,” who came after Impressionism.

In late fall of 1888 in Paris, a group of young, like-minded art students banded together after seeing a small abstract landscape by Paul Sérusier that he had made under the guidance of Paul Gauguin. Serusier’s boldly-colored composition, built up from broad patches of greens, yellows, blues, and reds arranged decoratively on the flat surface of a cigar box lid, marked a radical break from the naturalistic palette and broken brushwork of the Impressionists.

By the time of their first exhibition in 1891, the group had assumed the moniker “The Nabis,” a transliteration of the Hebrew navi meaning “prophet.” Their visionary approach asserted the primacy of form and color as abstract equivalents of human feeling. The Nabis’ emphasis on an artistic language of suggestion was in sympathy with the ideals of Symbolist writers, poets, and musicians, with whom the Nabis closely collaborated.

(from the exhibit description linked above)

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Lots of kitchen tables…

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and doorways…

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and mother-child pairs…

Among the paintings by Edouard Vuillard, Maurice Denis, Bonnard and others, there were plenty of wonderfully colorful domestic scenes and natural landscapes. But in addition to something like this…

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…we also saw some more abstract works, like this:

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Large-scale faces! Ink pen mixed with oils!

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A 4-color lithograph

I hadn’t ever seen Bonnard’s work in other mediums. Over time, the Nabis took on more urban subjects and ventured to street scenes as they also experimented with new formats like the lithograph. The placard for the above piece by Bonnard quotes him explaining that the limitations of printmaking, particularly limitations in color, taught him more about palette than paint — contrast becomes more important when working with fewer colors.

I was happy that this exhibit taught me something new about one of my favorite artists. The placard I just mentioned is a good example of another of The Phillips Collection’s strengths: exhibits like this tend to be well curated. Informative without being too much or too condescending. Taking the time to read the material throughout the exhibit means navigating the other visitors who often have no regard for personal space, but it’s generally worth it.

Museum shops are a different story though, huh? They rarely stock postcards of the paintings I liked best. I almost purchased a set of Bonnard notecards, until I realized the selection only included two paintings, and they weren’t ones that I like! I did, however, appreciate the inscription inside the box:

Pierre Bonnard painted what he found enjoyable–the comforts of the middle class, the intimacy of the kitchen, pets, children, pretty women, flowering fruit trees, bountiful tables, luxuriant gardens–and his art evokes pure happiness with its vibrant colors.”

What a guy.

“Early Spring” (1905)