Cascadia Composers May the Fourth be with you Bold new music for winds and piano Lincoln Recital Hall PSU Portland Oregon

Wallpaper and babies: The Nabis at Portland Art Museum

"Private Lives: Home and Family in the Art of the Nabis, Paris 1889-1900" highlights the early careers of four artists.

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Wallpaper is the first breakout star of the exhibition “Private Lives: Home and Family in the Art of the Nabis 1889-1900.” Most viewers will probably breeze by the four small samples of wallpaper in the exhibition’s entry space, preferring to engage with the work in the galleries beyond, but maybe even a glance is enough to lodge the notion that patterns are far more than just decorative background fodder for the 180 paintings, drawings, and prints in this show. 

Wallpaper is, of course, associated with domestic interiors, which fits right in with the theme of the show, “Private Lives.” As opposed to the bustling scenes of urban life that had dominated French art since about 1870, toward the end of the century artists turned inward, in this case, literally inside their homes. The exhibition offers viewers entry into these spaces and allows a  dive into patterns, decoration, and enclosed spaces. Viewers with a soft spot for nineteenth-century French art will be rewarded. For viewers who may need more convincing, I think there is another angle to the story that has broader appeal.

two female figures, one with a striped shirt with blousoned shoulders, arranging flowers in vases. Looser brushstrokes and wallpaper on the wall behind

Édouard Vuillard (French, 1868–1940), Woman in a Striped Dress (1895). Oil on canvas; 65.7 x 58.7 cm.
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1983.1.38. Courtesy
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. © 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

“Home and family” seems like a theme conceived in quarantine, artists stuck inside with nothing to paint but their family members and their patterned walls. In fact, the topic was chosen by the curators – Mary Weaver Chapin, the Curator of Prints and Drawings at Portland Art Museum, and Heather Lemonedes Brown, the Virginia N. and Randall J. Barbato Deputy Director and Chief Curator at the Cleveland Museum of Art – nearly five years ago. 

The idea of the interior, though, serves a dual purpose in that it refers to the physical “inside” but also to the metaphysical interior which is the broader focus of the Symbolist art movement that shifted toward emotional, literary, or mystical content at the end of the 19th century. 

(Still, I can’t help but wonder how the curators knew we were all going to be stuck in our homes for much of the past two years. Someone should probably let the people investigating the origins of Covid and the Wuhan Institute of Virology know about the eerily prescient print curators in Portland and Cleveland.)

There are “in house” museum shows, thematic arrangements that create a narrative using works from the museum’s own collections. Traveling exhibitions are put together by an outside body and then hosted by a museum. This is a lending exhibition, meaning that from conception to final execution, it has been the brainchild of Weaver and Brown. Of the 180 works in the show, some are from the host institutions (Portland Art Museum and the Cleveland Museum of Art) but the bulk are from elsewhere. The curators not only had to have a strong sense of the theme of their exhibition, they also had to know what works they wanted, where to find them, and then cajole curators, institutions, and collectors into lending those works. The process took several years. In a stroke of fortuitous luck, the curators finished traveling to secure works just before the 2020 global shutdown (additional support for the conspiracy theories). 

The show and the catalog are a triumph for Chapin and Brown. Both are a testament to their depth of knowledge about the artists and the world of fin-de-siècle Paris. I pored over the catalog, cover to cover; it’s a beautiful book. The artists associated with the Nabi brotherhood are sort of sandwiched between other “big” names in French art history. They’re most often discussed as transitional figures, but Chapin and Brown give Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard, Maurice Denis, and Félix Vallotton their due. Many of the works in this exhibition have never been exhibited side by side or subjected to the careful and loving analysis that Weaver and Chapin bring to the table. 

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Cascadia Composers May the Fourth be with you Bold new music for winds and piano Lincoln Recital Hall PSU Portland Oregon

The exhibition and the catalog are divided into five sections: “Interior Dramas,” “Family Life,” “Music in the Home,” “In the Garden,” and “The Nabi City.” “Interior Dramas” by far occupies the largest gallery space ,and is subdivided into the “Intimate Interior” and the “Troubled Interior.” 

interior room with pink patterned wallpaper. Single figure enters through a doorway. One hanging lamp and one desk lamp illuminate the room.
Edouard Vuillard, Interior with Pink Wallpaper I from Landscapes and Interiors. (1899). Color lithograph on China Paper. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The “Private Lives” theme seemed most accurate or appropriate to me for the first section, coincidentally the section with the most wallpaper. Vuillard’s suite of lithographs, Landscapes and Interiors, includes three prints with intricately patterned pink wallpaper that obscures and complicates the interior space. In Vuillard’s Interior, Mother and Sister of the Artist, the sister’s plaid dress merges with the dappled wallpaper she leans against; she becomes insubstantial, contrasting sharply with the solidity of the mother in black. Both sitters crouch in space, as if the ceiling is pressing down upon them. 

The wall texts play up ideas of ambiguity and tensions, the idea that there are “discontents simmering below the surface.” In Vallotton’s suite of woodcuts, Intimacies, those discontents are at full boil. This suite was my favorite in the show. Vallotton’s mastery of woodcutting is on full display, as is his sheer distrust (even verging on disgust) for romantic entanglements. The couples in each print are intractably emotionally distant, either physically apart or embracing under pretense. The titles are integrated into the composition, part of the block. In The Lie, the woman nuzzles into the man’s neck, the curving stripes of her dress contrasting with the stripes of the wallpaper behind. In The Fine Pin, the couple embraces, potentially lovingly, but the jewelry alluded to in the title rests on a nearby table, suggesting that it is the only driver of the embrace. There’s sulking, crying, and even an unbridgeable gap on a sofa. The amount of drama and compositional flair that Vallotton was able to coax from woodblocks is astounding.  

black and white image of a couple embracing in an interior room with a window, table, and bed. A hair pin sits on the table to the left.
Félix Vallotton (Swiss, 1865–1925), 
The Fine Pin (La Belle épingle), from Intimacies (Intimités) (1898). Woodcut in black on cream wovepaper; image: 20.4 x 25 cm; sheet: 25 x 32.4 
cm. The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of the Print and Drawing Club, 1948.3.

Vallotton’s scenes absolutely take place in an interior space, but he feels a bit shoehorned into the exhibition sections. In the “Music in the Home” section, Bonnard, Denis, and Vuillard’s works include multiple drawings and watercolor studies for children’s music primers, images of children, and portraits of women at the piano. Vallotton is represented by a set of woodcuts of solitary musicians. It could be the after-effect of viewing the previous series or the stark contrast between black-and-white, but one does not get warm and fuzzy feelings from Vallotton’s musicians. They seem like they’d be pissed if interrupted, and they certainly have no interest in playing for children. 

Vallotton seems ripe to be pegged as a curmudgeon. In the “Family Life” section, Vallotton has only one painting: The Red Room, Étretat, in which a woman reclines in a chair, sort of disinterestedly observing a child tear up some paper. Chapin and Lemonedes describe this as “estrangement between adults and their tiny charges.” True, the woman isn’t caressing the child or looking at her adoringly, but not all interactions with children can possibly be precious. I didn’t read the woman as estranged from the child so much as smugly and exhaustedly congratulating herself on finding something that kept the kid entertained and happy for even a minute.  

woman sitting in a chair in the corner of a red walled room. A baby rips up paper on the floor

Félix Vallotton (Swiss, 1865–1925), The Red Room, Étretat (1899). . Oil on artist’s board; 49.2 x 51.3cm.
The Art Institute of Chicago, Bequest of Mrs. Clive Runnells, 1977.606

It may be because we’re approaching the second anniversary of Covid quarantines and I’m just fed up with simmering tensions in interior spaces, but on the whole, I didn’t find the provided headings to be the most compelling frame for the material. The sections make functional sense – there are gardens, music, city scenes, family life – but the overarching story is missing. 

The whole background of the Nabis sounds like a setup for a coming-of-age film. A group of young artists, most just out of high school and all around twenty years old, band together and pledge themselves to the cause of modern art. They go so far as to declare themselves “prophets,” perhaps partially in jest. They wear black robes when they meet. They give each other nicknames. The exhibition features Maurice Denis, “the prophet of the beautiful icon;”; Edouard Vuillard, the “Zouave prophet”; Pierre Bonnard, “the Japanese prophet”; Felix Vallotton, “the foreigner prophet.” 

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Portland Opera Puccini in Concert Keller Auditorium Portland Oregon

Some group members had family money, while others were more concerned about making a living. Vuillard lived with his mother (until she died). Bonnard’s father insisted he go to law school; he went, and even passed the bar, but failed the entrance exam for the civil service. He dedicated himself anew to his art. 

In the time span of the show, 1889-1900, the artists are all in their twenties and early thirties. They’re cycling through all sorts of different artistic influences, trying to find their own voices. Equally, they’re producing some work that is great and some that is less accomplished. They’re trying to make names for themselves, so they hustle, befriending critics, taking on all manner of different multiples projects, both single sheet prints and suites, even music books. Some projects work out; others don’t.

composition dominated by the figure of a woman, she extends her hand and the head of a short-haired figure presses lips to the hand. Landscape int he back.
Maurice Denis, Et c’est la caresse de ses mains (And It Is the Caress of His Hands), from the portfolio Amour (Love) (1898) color lithograph on paper. Image courtesy of the Portland Art Museum.

The artists have relationships. Denis is immediately besotted with the woman who becomes his wife, Marthe Meurier. He’s the puppy-dog-eyed one, in love with the whole idea of being in love. The double portrait of Denis and Meurier from 1896 oozes sentimentality. The titles of his suite of lithographs Love (Amour) from 1899 are pulled from Denis’s journal about his love for his wife. In And It Is The Caress of Her Hands, one figure bends down to kiss the hand of the other. They have children, and Denis, a devout Catholic, can’t help but make many variations on the theme of the Madonna and Child. 

The other three artists aren’t as lucky in love, but given their ages and stage of life, still find themselves enmeshed in familial scenes. Vuillard remains a bachelor, but his sister marries another painter and they have a child. Bonnard also paints nieces and nephews, delighting, maybe perseverating, on the weirdness of babies. They’re squishy and oddly proportioned, perfect subjects for a young artist. Multiple works in the show capture the “babies look like old men” phenomenon with stunning accuracy. 

left side of the compsoition dominated by baby with oddly shaped head. Held by a figure with a patterned shirt. Head of a third figure looks on at the lower right corner of the composition.

Pierre Bonnard, Family Scene, (1893). Color lithograph on paper; image: 31.3 x 17.8 cm; sheet: 58 x 41.5 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Nancy F. and Joseph P. Keithley Collection Gift, 2020.150. © 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

The unluckiest in love is Vallotton. After a few years of making his own way in Paris with print suites such as Musical Instruments (1896) and Intimacies (1898), in 1899 he marries a wealthy widower, Gabrielle, who also happens to be the daughter of his art dealer. Vallotton’s portrait of Gabrielle doesn’t strike me as sympathetic, but I may be projecting. She already had three children, so he steps into being a stepfather. But, unsurprisingly given his penchant for depicting unhappy couples, he chafes at family life.

The show ends in 1900, in part because the artists move on. They outgrow the idea that they’re any sort of “prophets of modern art.” They start to find success individually and are less dependent on one another. The art periodical that they all worked on together goes bust. I imagine they shuddered at their own naivete (especially the whole robes thing) and maybe even laughed at some of their past projects. I somehow especially hope that Denis had a sense of humor about the Love suite.

In a review of the show in Cleveland, the critic for the Wall Street Journal, Lance Esplund, praised the show but also called it “overhung” and “uneven.” He further observed: “While beautifully designed and installed, the exhibition feels like a massive print show fleshed out with paintings.” 

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Portland Opera Puccini in Concert Keller Auditorium Portland Oregon

If the narrative of the show is about a group of artists becoming their future selves, coming of age, then the fact that the works are of varying quality is part of the story. They’re learning to be artists. The art in Bonnard’s children’s music primers is quirky and odd; they’re not arresting compositions by any means. It’s the sort of project that someone might take on at 23, especially on the heels of failing a civil service exam. It’s not the highlight of his career, it’s part of the fashioning of one. 

installation view of the exhibition, warm orange-red colored wall hung with framed pictures
Installation view of “Private Lives: Home and Family in the Art of the Nabis” (2021).

The prints in this show are equally part of that story. The artists were just starting out, and multiples were a way to cultivate and expand an audience. The group was embedded with art critic Thadee Natanson’s publication La Revue Blanche, and contributed prints there. Bonnard’s Cover of ‘Album of Original Prints from Vollard Gallery’ is a print equally intended to be a cover for a print collection. Vuillard’s suite Landscapes and Interiors signaled his interest and facility with confounding interior spaces, serving as a sort of advertisement for the sort of work that he would later become known and celebrated for as a painter. With a lower price point than a painting and multiple copies, prints were a better financial bet for early-career artists.

The works in this show are so well poised to tell this story, which is threaded through the catalog but isn’t highlighted in the show itself. I’m guessing in part this is because the coming-of-age thing is more cinematic than academic, and less appealing to the curators and collectors who had to be wooed to lend things. It’s not as appealing to say, “Well, we want your work because it shows the artist floundering about” than it is to say, “Your work is important because it is in a garden and that is just the theme of our exhibition.” 

As ironic as I find the focus on private lives given the current state of the world, the show equally feels like a relic of a different type of museum show, one aimed at academics or connoisseurs. I have an academic background, and can’t emphasize enough how much I appreciate the skill and knowledge that went into putting this show together. 

I think the reason that I want to cast this show as a coming-of-age tale is because I want it to have broader appeal. The Nabis is a more obscure movement and group of artists; its members don’t have the name recognition or cultural cache that many nineteenth-century French movements and artists enjoy. There’s the complicating factor of the weight of Europe as the model of white culture in the United States. There’s not an obvious draw for this show, particularly in Portland in 2021. 

There was a five- or six-year gap between the genesis of the show and its fruition, and that gap shows. I’d be surprised if PAM greenlit a project with a similarly academic, European focus anytime in the near future. The “Paris 1900” show was in the summer of 2019, and while that was a traveling show organized by a French museum consortium, the decision to host the show must have been made around the same time that Weaver conceived of this show. From an academic perspective, the shows are different: different artists, different objects and media, different focus. To the population at large, those distinctions are less evident or meaningful. I can almost hear: “Yep, still about some white guys in Paris.” 

These are still white guys in Paris, but told a different way, this exhibit has a broader story about youth and early-career hustling. There’s something endearing about the naivete of the artists anointing themselves prophets; their awkward love stories; their attempts to launch art careers with fits and starts. Babies are squishy and awkward and people do embarrassing things when they’re young and in love. It’s part of being human.

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Portland Columbia Symphony Adelante Voices of Tomorrow Beaverton and Gresham Oregon

The wallpaper is gorgeous, but it’s an acquired taste. Youthful self-importance, young love, portfolio building, and weird babies? Now, there’s a theme with broad appeal. 


“Private Lives: Home and Family in the Art of the Nabis, 1889-1900” is on view at the Portland Art Museum through January 23, 2022. Information about tickets and timing is available here.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Laurel Reed Pavic is an art historian. Her academic research dealt with painting in 15th and 16th century Dalmatia. After finishing her PhD, she quickly realized that this niche, while fascinating, was rather small and expanded her interests so that she could engage with a wider audience. In addition to topics traditionally associated with art history, she enjoys considering the manipulation and presentation of cultural patrimony and how art and art history entangle with identity. She teaches a variety of courses at Pacific Northwest College of Art including courses on the multiple, the history of printed matter, modernism, and protest art.

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