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Perhaps unsurprising for a group that named themselves after the Hebrew for ‘prophets’, the Nabis were a forward-thinking yet short-lived artistic movement (little more than 10 years) based within France at the close of the 20th century.
Imbued with a desire to go beyond the excessive & superficial effusiveness that the collective perceived in Impressionism; their focus was to capture the intimacy of everyday life through a more decorative sense of paint. One that realised its own constrictions and thus strove further within this admission to appeal to a more refined, evocative aesthetic that wasn’t afraid in treading towards more exotic palettes at the sacrifice of realism. Expounding further on this notion in his book Théories 1890 – 1910, the movement’s founder, Maurice Denise, reminded his fellow members that all art is essentially illusion, declaring: ‘remember that a picture, before being a war horse, a nude woman or some anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assumed in certain order’.
Unlike the Obelisk worship of Dutch Nabi contemporary, Jan Verkade, or the extravagant theatrical subjects of fellow Frenchman, Ker-Xavier Roussell, Édouard Vuillard’s work is intensely confidential and hushed. His individualised ‘Intimisme’ approach to the Nabis style predicated on intimate domestic genre paintings. Through Vuillard we are privy to the glory of everyday life, his superbly human pictures achieving both a domestic reality as well as a subtle dream-like essence.
‘Mother and Child’ – 1900
Though simple, and, perhaps on first glance maybe even quaint or twee. It is the subtle experiment with depth by Vuillard within ‘Mother & Child’ that endears it as an interesting piece.
Starting with a decisively low central focal point in the fumbling child, our eye is given time to appreciate the canted, knee-high level with which the artist has constructed the scene. From here we see the tremendously realised wall recession that amid its retreat endows the image with a believable, engaging sense of perspective. The wallpaper of this section worth a mention not only for the slightly embittered floral glare of the pattern that Vuillard paints it with, but the way in which both sides of the design seem to emanate outward from aforementioned dimensional curve gifting it an enticing visual quality. Yet this isn’t the only element of the painting that does this.
The eponymous ‘Mother & Child’ too possess an oddly circular dichotomy. At first our eye is with small girl who is clearly engrossed within her own personal struggle. Watching, more annoyed perhaps than engrossed, but still watching all the same is her mother. A parent whose dominating red glowers as true as the pitting embers behind her. In the act of observing with them then, we ourselves become implicit and caught between this dialectic inspection. Engrossed both between the two figures at the centre, and the sense of perspective that retreats behind and away from then.
To allay fears of getting too carried away though, let’s look at what Vuillard intended. His delicacy of paint for one, in particularly when it comes to the clothes of ‘Mother & Child’. Not for nothing it seems did he spend his youth in-and-out of his mother’s shop. The artist seems to notice every detail, catching the exact cut and texture of how both dresses fit. The mother a matriachal post box, as immovable as the elements behind her. The child below a wondrous flurry of delicate frills gasped through with thick confident strokes.
Captured here then is the accommodation of parenthood. The in-between sections of buttoning up and getting ready before everything else; the times parents remember were once a chore to them, and, perhaps in the future, may be again.
‘The Haystack’ – 1908
Windswept and transulucent in its chaotic scribble of tones, the Haystack of ‘The Haystack’ stands as an ethereal watch-guard of the three companions before the rough bluster of the background. Again, Vuillard’s eye for clothes is remarkable, the inward fold of the female on the right especially virtuoso. Though a sense of actual purpose is more difficult to ascertain here than ‘Mother & Child’, the mood is crisp and effective. Slightly perplexing perhaps in the incongruous pairing of the companions in of themselves, as well as the collective together against eponymous shape, but still inviting.
Behind the Haystack though the world seems an unwelcoming place. The sky a granite wash in which blue is but an afterthought, the trees spiking upward from the coming wind. It seems as if to placate this atmosphere even further Vuillard gifts us a single sheep standing and looking up defiantly to the menacing clouds that echo his on a macro scale. The trio don’t seem to care for any of this however, they have found refuge behind a glorious swath.
A central image to which it is hard to know where to begin as its influence seems everywhere. Various spindles have fell on the floor giving the ground itself, with its delicate intermingle of burns, flowers and hay an almost Waterlilies feel in its incalculable delicacy of thought and imagination. The haystack itself rises as a question and draws us all the further in. Its tangled shape a tangle of shapes similar to what the great Scottish poet Norman MacCaig description of hay as, ‘like tame lightnings’.
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