The Magazine

Paris in Prints

The National Gallery shows how exhibitions ought to be done

Feb 12, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 21 • By STEVEN C. MUNSON
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Only one false note is struck in the National Gallery's exhibition of French print-making from the late nineteenth century. It's there in the show's catalogue, where the otherwise excellent lead essay speaks of the "numerous artists, especially Bonnard," who "played a dynamic role" in Paris in the 1890s, "illustrating books and journals and combining words and images in the design of posters, theater programs, menus, and other ephemera." So far, so good. But then the writer attempts to link this intense activity to, of all things, "the genesis of aspects of the modern aesthetics of conceptual art."

Whatever else one may say about conceptual art, its tendency is to disparage feeling, slight the visual, and dismiss the physical qualities of a painting or a print. With conceptual art -- as one of its leading theoreticians and practitioners, Sol Le Witt, has put it -- "all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair." As the National Gallery show itself makes clear, nothing could be farther from the aesthetics of Bonnard and the turn-of-the-century Paris avant-garde.

"Prints Abound: Paris in the 1890s," on view in the East Building of the National Gallery until February 25, opened in the fall to almost no notice. That's a shame, for it is everything a museum show ought to be: informative, delightful, and educational. Indeed, the lack of press coverage may have kept many from visiting the show. What they have missed is proof that a museum -- by approaching a subject with modest aims and on a modest scale -- can use its permanent collection to bring viewers to a real appreciation and understanding of the art before them. In the age of the often unmanageable "blockbuster" show, this is well worth remembering.

The exhibition consists mostly of lithographs and photo-reliefs, along with a sprinkling of woodcuts, zinco-types, etchings, and aquatints. There are works by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Felix Vallotton, Eduard Vuillard, Paul Gauguin, Odilon Redon, and others, executed in different styles and reflecting different expressive purposes. But the star of the show is plainly Pierre Bonnard. The examples from Bonnard stand out both for their unsurpassed quality and for what one recognizes immediately upon seeing them: Here is a bridge from nineteenth-century impressionism and post-impressionism to twentieth-century modernism.

The impressionist remnant is evident in Bonnard's use of scenes of Paris by day and night, indoors and out. But in exploring such themes, the impressionists had sought a new kind of realism: the physical and psychological realism of Degas, or the realism of visual perception epitomized by Monet. Bonnard had something different in mind. Perhaps the best way to see what he was up to is to compare his prints with those of Lautrec, who is represented in the show almost as amply. Both were master draftsmen. Both, too, had a marvelous sense of color. But in their prints they used color in different ways.

Take, for example, Lautrec's lithograph Partie de campagne (1897). More than half the off-white paper has been left untouched, giving the print a modern "unfinished" look that is as appealing today as it was then. At the same time, the use of color remains basically descriptive: blue sky, green grass, yellow carriage, a woman's red hair. One gets an impression of receding open space in this image of a country outing.

Unlike Lautrec, Bonnard, working early in his career and under the influence of the Gauguin-inspired Nabi-style, fashioned his print-images with broad, flat areas of color. This has the effect of presenting a sensation of space rather than an illusion of space. The absence of modeling of forms is especially evident in L'Enfant a la lampe (1897), Scene de famille (1893), and La Petite Blanchisseuse (1896). These images appear both flat and bodied, contrived yet lifelike, socially realistic yet aesthetically pure. The use of color is anti-naturalistic, but the result, strangely, is not. Locked in formal tension by an odd geometry of line and color, these prints create a mood of extreme intimacy.

In looking at Lautrec's prints, one feels oneself an observer; in looking at Bonnard's, one feels as though one is somehow participating in the delicate feelings they evoke. Here, indeed, is the intimation of a modernist impulse to create an intensity of feeling by exploiting the two-dimensional surface of the print medium.