Modern Art Prophets

I recently attended a lecture by Mercer County Community College Professor Mel Leipzig on two of the key members of Les Nabis, Edouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard. Les Nabis were post Impressionist avant-garde artists in Paris in the 1890s. The word comes from the Hebrew word prophet, because these artists considered their work to be the future of art; Les Nabis were the prophets of modern art.

The subject matter was representational, and influenced by Japanese art, often flat. Like the Impressionists, they used luminous colors, often a fantastical representation.

“For Bonnard, art was an expression of pleasure,” said Mr. Leipzig, a member of the National Academy as well as a recipient of such awards as a Fulbright Traveling Fellowship and the Louis Comfort Tiffany Award. “Vuillard was interested in psychological introspection. He painted his mother, whom he lived with until he was 40, hundreds of times.”

Vuillard’s mother and sister worked with textiles, and their home was decorated with brilliantly patterend tapestries, textiles and tchotchkes. “Vuillard painted everything,” said Mr. Leipzig, who studied at Cooper Union, Yale and Pratt — his teacher was Josef Albers. “If you had a jar of vaseline in the room you’d better get rid of it or he’d put that into the painting too.”

Vuillard’s women, often locked inside of the house, blended into the wallpaper, with their patterned garments. Feminists critique the way both Vuillard and Bonnard blend women into the background, according to Mr. Leipzig. Looking at a painting with a splotch of something on her lap, Mr. Leipzig asks “Is that a cat or is that knitting?”

Bonnard married a younger woman and painted her as often as Vuillard painted his mother. “She was big on taking baths, so he bought her a tub and painted her bathing in it,” said Mr. Leipzig. “Bonnard was the greatest painter of the bathroom.”

Mr. Leipzig says Bonnard was so obsessed with perfection, he would sometimes sneak into museums to retouch his paintings. Or, for paintings in private collections, he would offer to house sit and then completely change a painting.

Pictured: Bonnard’s “Young Women in the Garden”

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