In the late 1800s, a group of French painters sought to move away from the illusionistic realm of art, creating instead symbolic and dreamlike paintings that evoke a world beyond that of reality. The paint-handling was soft and the scenes gauzy, trading precise draughtsmanship and strict perspective for life as if seen through memory.
The artists took their directive seriously: they formed a secret society, complete with code and secret handshakes, and called themselves Les Nabis, Hebrew for “The Prophets”. Similar to the contemporaneous Arts and Crafts movement in the United Kingdom, they believed that beauty shouldn’t be confined to the art gallery – painting on folding screens and making work specifically for patrons’ homes, they brought aesthetics into daily life.
Their flat, perspectiveless paintings also bear more than a passing resemblance to Japanese prints, particularly the ukiyo-e works of Katsushika Hokusai, who was active in the early 1800s. This is no coincidence: the Nabis collected and studied Japanese prints, inspired not only by their two-dimensional style, but also by their elaboration of stories through separate panels and discontinuites, as is explored by a new exhibition at Louvre Abu Dhabi.
The first to set examples from the two cultures side by side, Japanese Connections: Birth of Modern Decor puts Nabis paintings from the Musee d’Orsay alongside Japanese prints drawn from the collections of the Musee Guimet and Louvre Abu Dhabi.
“The Japanese connection started with [French Post-Impressionist] Paul Gauguin,” explains Isabelle Cahn, curator of the show and curator of paintings at the Musee d’Orsay. “[Fellow French artist] Paul Serusier painted a small landscape in 1888 when he went to see Gauguin, who was at the time isolated in a small village in Brittany, Pont-Aven. Gauguin asked, how do you see this landscape? Yellow, blue? Paint it yellow and blue.”
Serusier called the resulting work The Talisman, and it functioned as such for the artists it inspired. "It was a simple work, quite abstract," says Cahn.
Serusier brought it back to the Academie Julian, the art school where he studied alongside artists Edouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard, who were later to become Nabis. “They became very interested in painting in this new way: only bright colours, no perspective, no modulation, just an interpretation, a vision of nature.”
The artists also picked up on Gauguin's fascination with Japanese iconography, visible in such works as the Hokusai-esque Children Wrestling of 1888 (not in the show but in the permanent collection of Louvre Abu Dhabi). In Serusier's Women at the Well, a tall, screen-like painting that unfolds as if in layers, the younger artist paints women in robes and long dresses wending down a path in order to dip luminous orange jugs in the water.
Other colourful landscapes of the period keep company with Japanese predecessors, such as Hokusai's South Wind, Clear Sky, from his famous Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, which shows the Edo artist's remarkable ability to summon drama from the simplest of forms. Here, thin clouds appear to float past Mount Fuji, coloured a dark, blood-red, with white lines of snow that seem to snake down from its peak like veins. South Wind, Clear Sky might be the innocuous title, but the work reminds us that Mount Fuji was a popular site for suicides in Japan.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi show is weighted towards the French painters, with the emphasis on the Japanese works as influence rather than a look into how Japan’s 19th century print-making tradition developed. The exhibition’s second half moves away from the Japanese prints and more directly towards the fruits of its inspiration, as in the multi-panelled works that played with continuity and discontinuity and which sought to map the passage of time in self-contained cycles of work.
Many of these paintings, in contrast to the traditional Salon presentation of works, were made for a domestic context. Bonnard painted a scene of nannies pushing prams for the kind of folding screen used as a room divide. Vuillard created a nine-panel cycle of daily life in the park: mothers and their children, and an older woman in mourning dress, sat alone.
“They wanted to be close to the people and to real life,” says Cahn. “Very often they took their friends and family for models and their compositions were based on their home life, but theatricalised. They want to express a form of intimacy.”
The masterpiece in this exhibition is the 17-panel suite of paintings that Odilon Redon executed for the dining room of the Baronne de Domecy's chateau. Painted in ochre and red tones, the work is a sublime expression of the interweaving of figure and ground, and the emblematic use of woman for nature: women, with their heads bent or arms outstretched, emerge almost imperceptibly from the yellowy foliage behind them. The Musee d’Orsay has the panels, but no photographs remain from the Baron’s chateau, however, so there is no way to know how it was originally installed.
This is the third of Louvre Abu Dhabi’s temporary exhibitions, each of which has been mainly drawn from one of the 12 institutions in Agence France-Museums, the lending body to Louvre Abu Dhabi.
The first permanent exhibition, From One Louvre to Another, told the story of the Musee du Louvre’s founding, with works from the Paris museum.
The second, Globes: Visions of the World, was curated by National Library of France.
Future shows will continue in this pattern, with, for example, an exhibition of early photography coming from the Musee du Quai Branly next year.
On the one hand, the weddedness of this programming to its lenders has reinforced the Frenchness of the museum, even though its major innovation is to offer a universal perspective on the world’s culture. On the other, this kind of historical exhibition is precisely what the Louvre Abu Dhabi and Agence France-Museums partnership can produce: a revisitation of the historical canon with a lateral view, emphasising art history as a series of exchanges rather than one of national art movements heading forward. Cahn agrees.
“This is very different from all the exhibitions that I’ve organised before,” she says. “It is the first time that we have this subject of the connection between Japan and the Nabis. This is a well-known historical subject – we knew they collected Japanese prints, they wrote about that, and we have seen reproductions. But this is the first time that we can show the real Japanese prints close to the paintings.”
Japanese Connections: Birth of Modern Decor is at Louvre Abu Dhabi until November 24, 2018