Two Nabis in Budapest: Aristide Maillol and József Rippl-Rónai

I was first drawn by the Museum of Fine Arts Budapest but subsequently learnt after booking flights and accommodationthat it was closed for renovation until 2018. After further research on what Budapest had to offer art-wise, I got lucky: ‘RIPPL-RÓNAI AND MAILLOL – The Story of a Friendship’ at the Hungarian National Gallery. I was particularly attracted by Aristide Maillol, known for his sculptures of nude female figures inspired by the Classical Greek and Roman. József Rippl-Rónai didn’t ring any bells for me initially.


Female Profile, 1890, Maillol

I was later reminded that Hungarian Rippl-Rónai (1861-1927) joined the Nabis group (prophets in Hebrew), a majority-French Post-Impressionist group influenced by Japanese art’s planar 2D composition, synthetic forms with a stark contour and intense colours. I also learnt that Maillol (1861–1944) became acquainted with the Nabis via Rippl-Rónai and that Rippl-Rónai became a Salon “associé”, meaning he could show works at the Salon without approval from the jury. 


The exhibition curator did an excellent job of showing Rippl-Rónai and Maillol’s individual careers, their common artistic paths, their influence over each other, and finally their friendship. Both artists were keen to discover their own artistic paths – outside the Beaux Arts Academy for Maillol and by distancing himself from his master for Rippl-Rónai. Both moved outside painting (Maillol first) and into“decorative arts” (now applied arts) trying tapestry, at least temporarily


Rippl-Rónai was keen to develop his own artistic methods. He started what he called “drawn oil painting”: he drew compositions on canvas in charcoal or graphite and then “fixed” it with a thin coat of oil paint. He subsequently tried “real” oil paints. He also sampled “painting all at once”, characterised by painting in one sitting and the development of the surface all at once, without correcting, scraping off or repainting. Rippl-Rónai’s high use of pastels was suitable forhis ethereal symbolist women, reminiscent of Maillol, Whistler and to a lesser extent, Symbolist painter Ferdinand Holder, in my view. 


With regards to Maillol, who is better known for his sculptures nowadays, I was interested in learning about how a sculptor would paint. His paintings didn’t give clues about his sculpting period. Maillol painted in different styles: testing and trailing the Nabis style, Pointillism, and Impressionism later on. His unidentified women from his paintings may have preceded his female sculptures, I felt. Quotes from Maillol himself showed that he didn’t have a predestined willingness for sculpture. “When I carved my first sculpture, I had no idea what I was doing […]. I carved a head, then a neck […], one after the other… And it came out quite well at the end”. 


The friendship between the two artists is felt subtly along the exhibition but becomes more evident towards the end of the show. Rippl-Rónai spent four months in Maillol’s hometown Banyuls-sur-Mer with the latter’s family and the stay resulted in 60 works being produced, with Rippl-Rónai transitioning to (muted) colours from his dark “black pictures” series. Both found success in the later stages of life and in different cities: Maillol as a sculptor in Paris and Rippl-Rónai in Kaposvár, Hungary. 


Most works by Maillol are loaned from or courtesy of Fondation Dina Vierny – Musée Maillol of Paris; while most of Rippl-Rónai’s works are from the artist’s museum in Kaposvár. The exhibition includes a few works from other Nabis artists, such as paintings from Bonnard from the Museum of Fine Arts Budapest. Towards the end of the show the deeply emotional letters of friendship between the artists are on displaya grand finale for this superb exhibition at the Hungarian National Gallery. 


My Grandmother, 1894, Rippl-Ronai 
I wish this exhibition was coming somewhere close to you but if you are travelling to Budapest, it is well worth a visit. Until 17 May 2015.

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