Beyond the Easel

at the Art Institute of Chicago, through May 16

By Janina Ciezadlo

I find myself defending the paintings in “Beyond the Easel” at the Art Institute of Chicago against the accusation that they’re too pretty. Many contemporary observers consider decorative art unworthy of consideration because it’s apparently outside the formal and philosophical dialogues in which the visual arts participate. It almost seems there’s some sort of moral resistance to the seductive qualities of paint, as if people expected ethical direction with their color and form–echoing the charges leveled against the impressionists, criticized for delivering no “message” in the way history paintings did. Definitions of what’s moral in art tend to fluctuate. True, there might be something decadent about these works, created between 1890 and 1930, in the Roman sense of pleasure bought through imperial domination. But like Roman paintings, these decontextualized murals and decorative panels are beautiful and mysterious, very urban and at the same time intimate.

This large, wide-ranging exhibit showcases decorative painting on screens, in friezes, and on wall, door, and ceiling panels–created primarily for private patrons. (And painting murals for residences certainly beats many current artists’ aesthetic exile in temp work.) Called the Nabis after a Hebrew word for prophet, Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard, Maurice Denis, and Ker Xavier Roussel painted work that ranged from bright, rough-textured pieces (prefiguring the shocking color disjunctions of the fauves) to pieces in the impressionist style to flat, bright art nouveau-style illustration. Though it was just before this period that “art for art’s sake” began, these paintings were conceived and executed with respect to how they would affect and define domestic spaces.

Today viewers are used to the vacant white cube of the gallery, where each brush stroke captures attention. But the work in “Beyond the Easel” had to compete with rooms filled to the brim with 19th-century bric-a-brac and exotic clutter. The curators haven’t reproduced any of these settings, though they offer some (not enough) photographs from the period to give the viewer an idea of how the rooms looked. Still, low lights and colored walls produce a sense of intimacy and interiority. One feels far removed from the noise, activity, and glare of the urban day; clinging to the works is the sense of mystery inherent in private spaces once inhabited, now abandoned.

Perhaps this sense of interiority is what made me favor the pieces that seemed to bring the outside in. Between 1895 and 1899 Bonnard completed three very green oil paintings of an orchard whose saturated color and large size create an effect not only of space but of an almost atavistic prosperity and calm sensuality. Bonnard largely ignored the conventions of landscape painting: one of these shows family members gathering apples, but the tapestrylike texture of the brush strokes and lines tends to embed the figures in the landscape rather than emphasize them. The other two, portraying a broad field, are only tenuously connected to landscape-painting formulas by tree branches framing the lush, flattened space. Similar green paintings by Vuillard are even larger and rely less on mood and color and more on figuration; these graced the dining room of the Natansons, one of the Nabis’ most important patrons. The family put out La revue blanche, a literary journal that published the writings of Gide and Proust as well as illustrations by the Nabis. One can imagine the intellectual context surrounding these lush paintings, as dinner companions discussed the proper function of art, symbolist aesthetics, synesthesia, anarchism, and the famous Dreyfus affair.

These were bourgeois interiors, however, and for the most part the painters did not attempt to subvert the social or political order. Yet the last years of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th had their own tensions and contentions, including a reverence for the handmade at a time when industrialization had transformed the world. Like Morris and Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites before them, the Nabis saw themselves as resisting mass production and the alienation of labor. They eschewed the implicit hierarchy of illusionism and alluded to a spiritual dimension, concentrating on emotional effect at a time when positivism was almost a religion. But we associate decoration with interior design. Though feminist art historians have revived interest in the domestic or everyday functions of art, decorative art may still seem unimportant and naive to some modern viewers who have an appetite for the terrifying and sublime.

Even though the bourgeois interior generally represented a comfortable retreat from urban life and the industrial fortunes that sustained it, city parks were the subject of many of Vuillard’s strongest works. His 1894 Public Gardens (a set of nine 84-by-26-inch panels) and a five-panel screen from 1911 of the Place Vintimille, about 8 feet by 12 feet, bring city life into interior spaces. On the other hand, Parisian parks often seem more like outdoor rooms than wild romantic places, with regularly planted trees, flat surfaces of pebbles, and movable chairs. They were social gathering places (segregated, like all such spots, by class) dedicated to conversation, seeing and being seen, and the entertainment of children. In Vuillard’s panels, the regularity of a canopy of chestnut trees and their trunks is punctuated by the figures of children and nursemaids, again embedded in the painterly surface rather than emphasized. The Place Vintimille screen–painted using a hot-wax technique that depended on speedy execution and provided a highly tactile surface–depicts a flowering, verdant space encircled by streets and sidewalks as seen from an upper-story window. Here the public and private, inside and outside, intersect compellingly. And though the point of view is overhead, it has little to do with power and much to do with revealing the harmony of everyday life.

Perhaps the early decorative work here is appealing because it seems to portray moments of happiness, even arcadian fantasies, rather than producing the pleasure of genres associated with power–portraiture or history painting. True, the “detached observer” of urban life was born early this century out of the same context: one could argue that Vuillard has reproduced street scenes with a surveyor’s distance and sense of privilege. But the surface of his work is so activated by color and gesture that one can’t help but feel the contradiction between being swept up in his chaotic movement and the taming inherent in making a living scene into an object, a screen.

The exotic, or what at the time was called “the primitive,” does make an appearance in many large works by Denis and Roussel (who also did theater sets). Some of Roussel’s Mediterranean scenes, painted as late as 1930 and so bright and flat that emotionally they’re almost dark, depict the “afternoon of a faun,” earlier evoked in the symbolist poem by Mallarmé, then set to music by Debussy and staged as a ballet by Nijinsky. On one level these panels merely appended an erotic fantasyland to the rooms they graced. But on another they created slowly evolving installations, calling to mind another and quite valid function for painting.