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.

In two other prints, Bonnard achieves even more amazing results. Promenades des Nourrices, Frise des Fiacres (1895), a large four-panel color-lithographic screen, evokes the exquisite refinement and still beauty that one associates with the Japanese artists whose woodblock prints did so much to influence the late nineteenth-century Paris avant-garde.

So complete is Bonnard's evocation of this non-Western aesthetic -- with his use of large areas of empty space, his spare use of color, and his use of both patterned and "calligraphic" markings -- that one at first does not even notice the busy and humorous social scene being depicted.

Something similarly startling occurs when one looks at Maison dans la cour (1895-96). The central image -- a partial view through a window of two buildings of unequal height -- is created out of two blocky interlocking L shapes, the larger resting on its back, the other fused on top of it. The L shape was used earlier by Bonnard in a series of color lithograph relief-prints he did to illustrate a children's music primer. In such illustrations as Do Re Mi (1893), as the catalogue points out, "the task of creating images that would elucidate . . . verbal explanations of musical theory . . . offered Bonnard a perfect opportunity to engage in an amusing exercise in symbolist equation of form and meaning . . . : galloping horses to convey the sense of 'prestissimo' and an overweight woman to symbolize the whole note."

The catalogue notes that for "Bonnard and his contemporaries, music illustration was an arena for stylistic experimentation, as the artists moved from naturalist to more abstract symbolist modes." Maison dans la cour is the most abstract of the Bonnard prints on display. As with his four-panel screen, what strikes one first is the overall arrangement of various elements: four closely aligned squarish red dots here, three spaced-out black ovalish dots there, the scaffolding of lines, the asymmetrically blackened windows, the cluster of irregular chimney pipes -- they all combine to create staccato and counterpoint effects. Indeed, one can almost "hear" the graphic reverberations in this remarkably musical print.

The use of this sort of geometry (along with his retention of the impressionist technique of strokes and daubs) would become a central part of Bonnard's painterly art, which ranks as one of the great twentieth-century achievements. And it is striking to see the seeds of that art in these early prints. It is also striking to see how he and others -- in illustrating books, journals, and advertising posters -- elevated popular and commercial art forms. Bonnard's Le Figaro (1903) is an outstanding example of the promotional poster art of the time, not least because it shows both the kind of pictorial innovation of which he was capable and the good-natured humor with which he often seems to have approached his work.

In reflecting about such works, one cannot help thinking that the situation in Paris in the 1890s is the reverse of the situation in America today, where mere take-offs and simulations of popular and commercial art are celebrated as genuinely serious achievements. To see the gem-like "Prints Abound: Paris in the 1890s" -- a model of an unpoliticized museum exhibition -- is to wish there were more like it.

Steven C. Munson is a writer and painter in Washington, D.C.

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