Impressions of spiritual intimacy

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

There are two theories about post-impressionist art. One is that it was a continuation of the modernist spirit of the impressionists, with the application of ever-more scientific principles of color and light to the depiction of objects. The other is that post-impressionism was a re-assertion of an artistic tradition of symbolism and a stylistic move away from naturalism and realism.

The first theory is well represented in Tokyo at the moment with the “Neo-Impressionism, from Light to Color” show at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Art. Now the second theory is also getting an airing, with the exhibition “Intimate Impressionism from the National Gallery of Art, Washington” at the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum.

Although the latter show includes a sizable contingent of impressionist paintings — including Auguste Renoir’s charming “Woman with a Cat” (ca. 1875), which is used as the main image on the exhibition posters — and it has a title that talks up this component, the show actually has a much wider range.

It starts with mid-19th-century painters and continues well into the 20th century, including works by Johan Barthold Jongkind and Eugen Boudin, whose art looked back to the great Dutch landscape painters of the 17th century. The heart of the exhibition, however, is the group of “intimist” painters who emerged after impressionism, in particular the Nabis artists Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard, although other notable post-impressionists, such as Paul Cezanne and Paul Gauguin, are also included. Cezanne’s “Still Life with Milk Jug and Fruit” (ca. 1900) is a particularly fine example of his style, which hints at the Cubist movement that would appear shortly afterward.

What distinguished the impressionists from their predecessors was a desire to go out into the world to capture scenes of nature or city life and paint them as they saw them. The intimists reacted against this “public outreach” and attempted to recapture the sense of intimacy that existed in paintings by Johannes Vermeer, Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, and other great genre painters of the 17th- and 18th-century.

However, this narrative can get a little confusing at times, because some of the impressionists exhibited similar tendencies to the intimists, as can be seen in the mood of gentle reflection captured by Berthe Morisot in “The Artist’s Sister at a Window” (1869) or in the relaxed intimacy of “Madame Monet and Her Son” (1874) by Renoir. Interestingly, at the same time this was painted, Monet was standing next to Renoir, who was painting the same subject — sadly, though, the result is not included in the exhibition.

Many of the works on display are smaller paintings showing calm interiors and featuring family members, giving the exhibition something of a feminine flavor. This is heightened by the excellent choice of venue: The Ichigokan is a rebuilt Victorian building, ideal for exhibiting such low-key works.

The paintings also show the taste of Ailsa Mellon Bruce, a member of the wealthy Mellon banking dynasty. On her deathbed in 1969, she bequeathed 153 paintings, mainly French, to the National Gallery of Art in Washington and also left money for a fund to make future acquisitions.

The fact that very few of these works were executed for display in public exhibitions also attests to their intimacy. Originally, they were given as gifts to friends or family of the artists — such as Gauguin’s impressive “Self-Portrait Dedicated to Carriere” (1888 or 1889), which shows the artist’s characteristic long-jawed face — or were kept in the artists’ possession until they died.

As this implies, the quality of works is not always of the highest level, and some of the pieces, especially a few canvases by Vuillard, seem rudimentary — more like studies or experiments than anything else. But even Vuillard’s works are excellent examples of the characteristic Nabis technique of flattening images and eliminating depth. This tendency helped create works like “The Yellow Curtain” (ca. 1893) or “Two Women Drinking Coffee” (ca. 1893), in which Vuillard’s figures are stylized ciphers that work in a suggestive or symbolic way.

This was the intention of the Nabis group, who strove for something more spiritual than the impressionists. That goal, though, was somewhat undercut by the continuing presence of tea cups, mirrors, jugs of flowers and other bric-a-brac that suggested nothing particularly sublime was being hinted at.

More effective in achieving the Nabis goals are the paintings of gardens by Bonnard. Again it might be hard to see where the symbolism and spiritualism lies in a painting such as “Table Set in a Garden” (ca. 1908), but for Bonnard the motifs and forms were less important than the colors. In this painting and “Stairs in the Artist’s Garden” (1942/44), Bonnard is no longer using color for pedantic description, but much more expressively, musically, and therefore spiritually.

“Intimate Impressionism from the National Gallery of Art, Washington” at Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum, Tokyo, runs till May 24; 10 a.m.- 6 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.). ¥1,600. Closed Mon.