Visual Arts / Prophets and loss: Vuillard and Bonnard were more than just chroniclers of bourgeois fin-de-siecle Paris, Andrew Graham-Dixon argues. They painted states of mind

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The Independent Culture
A well-dressed Parisienne stands in a bourgeois domestic interior and finds herself suddenly confronted by the unknown. Rapt, in pink blouse and long black skirt and an extravagant flower-sprouting example of the fin de siecle milliner's art, she is an unlikely and involuntary witness to the mystery of things. Edouard Vuillard's L'Elegante, painted circa 1891, has been made to seem on the brink. But of what, exactly?

She seems casual but also transfixed, hypnotised by the spectacle of sunlight, which has been rendered by the artist as a solid column of bright, fatty, butter-coloured paint filling the crack between a pair of half-opened orange shutters. Silhouetted, almost dissolved by the radiance that surrounds her, she stands on the threshold of a bright and weird nothingness. Wraith- like, barely substantial, made of paint that seems itself to hover and tremble, she is nevertheless a monument, the image of what we all know ourselves to be: matter poised on the edge of its own dissolution, that final unbecoming which, the beautiful ominousness of the picture suggests, can seem both a promise and a threat.

L'Elegante is exhibit 153 in the huge survey at the Grand Palais, Paris, of the work of Les Nabis, a group of young, mostly French painters who decided some time in 1888 that they had enough in common to declare themselves an art movement. United by admiration for Van Gogh and Gauguin, as well as by certain vaguely formulated spiritual values inherited from some of the more eccentric sects of their times such as Theosophy, the Nabis took their name from the Hebrew word for prophets. But they were not all blessed with visionariness. Serusier and Denis, Ransom and Roussel, Maillol and Vallotton and Rippl-Ronai - they were all, on occasion, capable of painting intriguing and affecting pictures. But there were only two truly great Nabis: Vuillard and Bonnard.

The chief revelation of this show, apart from a number of wonderful and rarely seen pictures by those two artists, might be said to be its proving of a paradox. The Nabis were much preoccupied with the spiritual potential of art, and many of them painted religiose or grandly Symbolist subjects which they clearly believed were appropriate to their aspirations. Painting muses or wood nymphs in sylvan glades rendered as broad, cloisonnist expanses of pure saturated colour, artists such as Denis and Maillol hoped to create windows on to other, higher orders of spiritual being - and to counter what they saw as the damagingly materialist-positivist sensibility of their times by proposing mythical, otherworldly alternatives to it. But now their painted dreams of spiritual otherness tend to look painfully dated. The rooms of the Grand Palais contain rather too many sinuous art deco goddesses enacting mysterious but fundamentally unengaging allegories.

Bonnard and Vuillard, by contrast, whose paintings would always remain rooted in real things and real people, achieved genuine and intense visionariness. They, alone, managed to make painted equivalents for the intangibles all the Nabis wanted to paint. Focusing on the material world, they found themselves miraculously empowered to transcend it and, in painting the domestic or metropolitan milieux of bourgeois Paris, they also made some of the most remarkable pictures of states of mind - of aspiration, foreboding and many other barely articulable feelings - ever created. To see their pictures of the 1890s side by side and in depth is to realise that they were, as Picasso said of himself and Braque during their Cubist years, roped together like mountaineers.

Vuillard painted many of his pictures on a modest scale, but although they are physically small they are morally and emotionally enormous. They are also full of portents. The wavering zip of yellow splitting a plane of orange that occupies just a few square inches of L'Elegante contains, latent within it, a pictorial idea that at least one later 20th-century artist would devote his entire life to. The whole oeuvre of the New York School painter Barnett Newman, constructed around the notion that a split field of purely abstract paint might somehow conjure visions of the ineffable, of the mysterious world that lies beyond this world, is implicit in just one corner of just one painting by Vuillard.

Part of Vuillard's genius consisted in the daring with which he transfigured the real world as he painted it. In L'Elegante, he paints the things we assume to be solid (a person, walls, a floor) as if they were intangible phantoms; while he reserves for the things thought to be most fugitive and transitory (sunlight) his most blatant, insistently solid passages of paint. This freedom is also a form of licence insisted upon: Vuillard's way of declaring his right to paint the world not necessarily as it is but as it can, sometimes, seem - as weird and as unreal, indeed, as an apparition.

Vuillard, and Bonnard too, are constantly attempting to capture the apparitional quality that real places and people occasionally assume. The most daring strategy they adopt to convey this may be the way in which they allow vast slippages of attention to occur between one passage of paint and another, so that some forms seem almost cursorily treated, thrown away in pigment that abandons them to murky indistinctness, while others are rendered in amazingly vivid detail. Bonnard can paint a woman and a horse as almost unrecognisable silhouettes sliding across the view of a street; Vuillard can paint people in an interior but pay such calculatedly abbreviated attention to them that they seem swallowed up, absorbed, even obliterated by decor. Their pictures represent both the world and the ways in which, inattentively, partially, filtered through obsession or emotion, we experience it.

Bonnard's Omnibus emerges from this show as one of the masterpieces of the 1890s, and it is a perfect example of the technique carried to an extreme: like a fragment of experience snatched from the memory, it pictures the head of a young woman haloed by the vast radiant yellow wheel of a horse-drawn wagon. It is a wonderfully distinct image of the way we remember things or people that may suddenly strike us: a distinct image of vivid indistinctness.

The moments and places which the paintings reflect differ greatly - there are interiors and exteriors, portraits and animal paintings and street scenes and still lifes - but what the best of them have in common is the heightened, epiphanic quality of the waking dream. Bonnard, painting two friends and himself smoking, allows portrait and interior and the whirling patterns of smoke curling in the still air of a room to merge and coalesce as if all the discrete elements of an experience that took time to unfold have been condensed into the single moment perpetuated that is a picture. This is not art that aims to depict experience so much as to distil the memory of an experience, to preserve the idea of it. Painting a white cat, its back impossibly arched (but in just that exaggerated way that cats do arch their backs), Bonnard gives you an image that seems, somehow, even more palpable than a reality. Perhaps Picasso had the painting in the back of his mind when he made his well-known remark about wanting to create, in art, a goat that was more like a goat than a real one.

Bonnard once took a photograph of Vuillard in Italy, himself caught in the act of taking a photograph. One painter's snapshot of the other taking a snapshot is, also, a reminder of the important role that photography played in the evolution of their form of visionariness. Photographs taught Vuillard and Bonnard (as they had taught Manet and Degas) to keep on taking themselves unaware, to note and preserve the insistent oddity with which real life, left to its own devices, tends to be framed. The world snapped by the snapper, like the world as we see and remember it, is not neatly framed, and both Bonnard and Vuillard would devote much of their immense skill as artificers to recreating the impromptu effect of quickly taken photographs.

Vuillard derived from photography a tremendously powerful sense of the unfathomability of the world, its nature as a strange agglomeration of things and people in a condition of permanent and inexplicable flux. This may be the real theme of L'Aiguillee, ostensibly a painting of his mother at work dressmaking in her Paris flat. A woman sewing, her arm at the apex of the needle-pulling gesture, is frozen in silhouette. Before her sits an almost faceless assistant while behind her bolts and swatches of fabric have become a vivid heaped pile of brushstrokes accumulated at the lower edge of the painting. A portrait on the wall of the room presents the vague and blurry ghost of someone. Life is a patchwork, Vuillard is saying, a never-finished sampler with an unknown message. The only thing to do - like his mother in this quiet room, as patient and obdurate as Penelope awaiting Ulysses - is to go on, unknowing.

'Les Nabis' at Le Grand Palais, Paris, 10-8 daily except Tuesdays until 3 January.

Next week: Andrew Graham-Dixon on the expanded Louvre in Paris.

(Photographs omitted)