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True love

There are practical marriages and there are love marriages. The second category includes the exhibition by the Franco-Israeli artist Nathanaëlle Herbelin, born in 1989, whose forty-odd paintings are brought into contact at the Musée d’Orsay with around thirty paintings from the Nabi movement. This is true love because the meeting of these two eras within the museum space is harmonious and without weak points, to the extent that there are times when you can’t distinguish one from the other.

Stealing ideas from the Nabis

Pierre Bonnard

It’s also love because the young painter has always used the Nabis as a reference throughout her as-yet short career. “Nabi means prophet in Hebrew. I would often come here when I was a child on holiday with my grandmother who was French. I came to live in Paris when I was 23. Later, when I was studying at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, I would visit the Orsay to steal ideas from the Nabis, Vuillard, Bonnard, Vallotton, but also from Courbet and Eugène Carrière,” she says mischievously.

Bonnard’s subjects are mundane

“I wanted to paint in a way that didn’t take things too seriously. Bonnard’s subjects are mundane. He is modest. But out of that he makes spectacular paintings. That’s what interests me: the possibility that people looking at the painting can identify with it. Intimacy, pain, love… Archaic subjects,” reveals the artist. In order for the process of juxtaposing the Nabis and Herbelin to work, the exhibition’s curator Nicolas Gausserand had an excellent idea: he took away the majority of the frames from the older artworks.

Primitive feelings

Nathanaelle Herbelin

The Nabi movement emerged in 1889 as a kind of mystical brotherhood that sought not to achieve great feats of representation but to recover the “taste for primitive feeling”. They rejected the science of models and perspectives that came with the Renaissance of Da Vinci and Raphael, preferring a simplified aesthetic without the use of perspective in depictions from the Middle Ages.

Pregnancy test

Nathanaelle Herbelin

An other version of their style can also be found nearly 120 years later in Herbelin’s work. And it’s not just a repeat because her subjects are also highly contemporary. A pregnancy test here, a mobile phone there. We’re well and truly in the 21st century. Nathanaelle does use models from time to time. She gives the example of the seamster Ahmed who she met in the 18th arrondissement in Paris.

I want to paint like in a cave

Nathanaelle Herbelin

“His sadness was so deep I felt I had to bear witness to it.” The forms are depicted in a rough way but the craftsman’s shirt is worked with a pattern of dots. She uses a very matte pictorial texture, inspired by the fresco technique, “because I want to paint like I’m in a cave.” If this is the case then her cave is very luminous, however, because her paintings are marked by the presence of bright, contrasting colours like in the Nabis and in Gauguin’s work as well.

The depth of patterns

Nathanaelle Herbelin

The most accomplished pieces are the ones that work with the depth of patterns, like in this bedroom furnished with two beds and a closet. The floor, the bedcovers, the wallpaper are all a pretext for a proliferation of little shapes that make the canvas dance in all directions.

Style police

Nathanaelle Herbelin

“For a long time I lived in a studio with a postcard of Bonnard’s ‘Marthe au bain’”, says the painter. Later she used the inspiration to paint her boyfriend in water. Then she adds an amusing anecdote: when Christophe Leribault, former head of the Orsay who now oversees the Château de Versailles, visited her along with the curator of the exhibition she was afraid he would reproach her for all her borrowing of ideas from these Orsay masters. “I saw them as ‘the style police’.” On the contrary the Orsay had an intensively open policy to contemporary art. For Nathanaëlle Herbelin this is her first major museum exhibition.

Nathanaelle Herbelin

And the company does her no disservice.

 

Until 30 June. https://www.musee-orsay.fr/fr/agenda/expositions/nathanaelle-herbelin

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