Save Bonnard, Vuillard, Pass Beyond the Easel

The heady dream of extending the physical scale of painting to a size well beyond that of the traditional easel picture is one that many modern artists have been tempted to pursue. The ostensible hope was to achieve an integration of art and life far greater than it was believed possible for the modest dimensions of the window-like easel picture to accomplish.

Among the most famous of the painters who acted upon this belief were Edvard Munch, who produced a series of outsize murals for the Assembly Hall at the University of Oslo; Claude Monet, who produced, among other similar works, the gigantic series of Water Lilies for the Orangerie in Paris; and Paul Gauguin, who produced what may be his greatest painting in the Tahitian allegory called Whence Do We Come? What Are We? Where Are We Going? Never one to suffer the pangs of modesty, Gauguin described his painting as “a philosophical work … comparable to the Gospels.” Munch entertained similar ideas about his Oslo murals.

Other acolytes of this “beyond-the-easel” movement at the turn of the 19th century aimed for something cozier and more domesticated: the kind of bourgeois decorative painting that no one, least of all the painters who produced it, would be tempted to compare to the Gospels, even when the subject of the work was religious (as was sometimes the case with Maurice Denis). It is the work of four of these painters, all friends who are said to have been united in their aesthetic ideals, that is the subject of the exhibition called Beyond the Easel: Decorative Painting by Bonnard, Vuillard, Denis and Roussel, 1890-1930 , which has now come to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Because many admirers of Bonnard and Vuillard–the best, as well as the best known, painters in the group–are likely to flock to this exhibition with high expectations, I am obliged to point out that Beyond the Easel is not exactly an unalloyed pleasure. Some of it, in fact, is hilariously awful. It’s not only that Maurice Denis and Ker-Xavier Roussel are distinctly inferior painters (and Roussel, in particular, a pretentious mediocrity). It is also the case that this exhibition contains some of the very worst–and certainly the silliest–paintings by Bonnard ever to be seen here.

These are the three large decorative paintings– After the Flood ; Landscape Animated with Bathers , or Pleasure ; and Pleasure: Decorative Panel , or Games (all 1906-10)–commissioned by the legendary Misia Natanson Edwards for her capacious dining room at 21 quai Voltaire, in Paris, and exhibited at the Salon d’Automne in 1910. Wouldn’t you know that on the latter occasion, the critic Louis Vauxcelles, who had only recently savaged Matisse by dubbing him a “Fauvist,” or wild beast, had nothing but extravagant praise for these ghastly paintings by Bonnard, extolling their “fantasy, instinct, ingenuous spontaneity, French charm,” etc. Well, at times French art criticism too has its charms, but not because it can always be relied upon for serious judgment.

To my eye, anyway, Bonnard’s dark, overstuffed decors for Misia’s dining room–crowded as they are with fatuous allegorical detail and symbolist embellishments–have the look of something seen through a gelatinous scrim the color of brown gravy. One person attending the press view of this exhibition at the Met the other day asked me if Bonnard’s paint had darkened over the course of the last century. It was a generous thought, but at the risk of disillusioning her I had to break the bad news: This was obviously what Bonnard believed was expected of him for this commission. Still, it is reported in the catalog of the show that these silly pictures were much admired in their day by, among other eminences, André Gide and Marcel Proust. You can make of that what you wish.

Vuillard’s standard never falls quite as low as Bonnard’s worst, but more than a few of the Vuillard paintings in this show are far from being masterpieces. Mercifully, however, there are some masterpieces here as well, in the five decorative panels known as Album (1895), another of Misia’s commissions. There are some great Bonnards, too– The Terrace (1918), from the Phillips Collection, for example–but these seem to have little to do with decorative commissions. Bonnard’s only masterpiece among the commissioned decors is the grand triptych called Mediterranean (1911), which was commissioned by the Russian art collector Ivan A. Morozov for his Moscow residence. Confiscated by the Soviet government after the Revolution, Mediterranean is now part of the collection of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, which is where I first saw it in 1957. In that benighted period, this delightful triptych was still considered politically incorrect and could not be publicly exhibited. But it was often shown to critics and other visitors in the so-called “reserves” of the Hermitage. It may be difficult for some younger visitors to the Beyond the Easel exhibition to believe that a work like Mediterranean was long considered a threat to the Soviet regime–the threat of “bourgeois formalism”–but that’s the way it was in Russia for much of the 20th century.

About the insipidity of Maurice Denis’ paintings and the sheer vulgarity of Roussel’s, the less said the better. They were the workhorses of the beyond-the-easel movement, and their art now has only a certain historical interest. Denis is remembered today for something that he wrote–his celebrated observation “It is well to remember that a picture, before being a battle horse, a nude woman, or some anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.” This was indeed a brilliant insight, and one that was revolutionary in its implications, for it inevitably pointed the way toward abstract painting.

If not for the paintings by Bonnard and Vuillard, Beyond the Easel would scarcely exist as a serious exhibition, and it is for their work–however unevenly represented it may be here–that everyone with a serious interest in painting will want to see it. Beyond the Easel remains on view at the Met through Sept. 9.