The Nabist (Hebrew: "prophet") group was the result of a meeting between Gauguin and Serusier in 1888. The aim of the group, whose most famous members were Serusier, Maurice Denis, Desvallieres, Roussel, Vuillard, Bonnard and Vallotton, was to regenerate painting by simplifying design and tone, suppressing relief and depth, and by using the arabesque and placing emphasis on composition. The Nabis were decorators (churches, theatres), book-illustrators and poster-designers. Associates both of contemporary poets and the Revue Blanche, the Nabis influenced their contemporaries, and, historically speaking, linked Impressionism and Fauvism. " Young people," relates Maurice Denis, speaking of the beginnings of the movement, "were almost totally unaware of the great aesthetic movement called Impressionism which had just revolutionised painting. They had only got as far as Roll and Dagnan, as far as admiring Bastien Lepage and discussing Puvis de Chavannes with respectful indifference. They talked ill-informedly of Peladan, Wagner, Lamoureux's concerts and decadent literature: one of Ledrain's pupils initiated us into Semitic literature and Serusier demonstrated the doctrines of Plato and the Alexandrian school to the young Maurice Denis who was studying for the philosophy paper of the baccalaureat in literature." Philosophy, or to be more precise, theosophy and theology, aroused the Nabis' interest: they attended lectures by R.P. Janvier on St Thomas; indeed several of the Nabis' taste for religious speculation only confirmed their ardent spirituality. They also followed current musical trends and knew Claude Debussy (1862-1918), the writer of Pelleas et Melisande, La Mer and Le M artyre de Saint Sebastien, the composer whose recitative, subtle genius, and harmonic innovations (such as his Preludes for the piano) renewed the language of music. Ernest Chausson (1855-1899), a disciple of Cesar Franck, and the composer of La Legende de Sainte Cecile, Le Roi Arthur and L'Hymne vedique, was a close friend of Denis. "Less nihilistic than the painters, but equally concerned with greater individual freedom and greater expression, musicians were undergoing the simultaneous influences of the pure music revealed to them by Cesar Franck, Bach and the 16th- century contrapuntalists." (Maurice Denis, Theories.) Elsewhere, in Jean Cassou's preface to the catalogue for the exhibition entitled" Bonnard, Vuillard et les Nabis" (Paris, Musee d'art moderne, 1955) we read: "Revolution in painting is partly a spiritual revolution, and the radicals who practised this new manner of painting naturally identified their work with a spiritual exercise; for that reason they desired a unity among themselves similar to that of a religious community. Serusier dreamed of a future elect brotherhood composed solely of dedicated artists enamoured of goodness and beauty who imbued their work with that indefinable character he regarded as Nabist. ... The Nabis were serious in their desire for a spiritual fraternity drawn together around the precious jewel of a new idea .... Their. rather bantering acceptance of contemporary reality-its crazes, the gamut of culture from Paris street to cosy bourgeoisie- ran side by side with a desire for purity, at its most evident in their technique of elucidation and simplification and in their break with Impressionism. The movement and its outstandingly powerful personalities-Maurice Denis, Vuillard, Bonnard and Maillol-created a very rich and subtle movement in the history of French art."
The Nabis Group
“Nabi” is a Hebrew word meaning “prophet”. The Nabis used the term, suggested to them by the poet J. Lahor, to identify themselves , for most of them boasted the prophetic attribute of a beard, short and fringed in Bonnard’s case , while Denis had a fair one , Vuillard a generous growth, and Serusier a blazing red one. The term also flattered their esoteric outlook, both literarily (Symbolism) and mystico-religious (the Rosicrucians), so typical of the generation which fought naturalism by concentration on exceptions to the rule and affecting to divide society into “artists” and “bourgeois”. At any rate, the Nabis intended to sound the knell of official art and begin a new epoch, but not by resorting to destructive methods : on the contrary , their epoch-making methods were to be muted and subtle insidious and tender , subversive and mischievous. As a group the Nabis were neither prophets of woe nor unapproachable pariahs. They ways parted later but left their friendships and companionships intact. They accepted life and society came to accept them. With the exception of Vallotton perhaps, these bold innovations enjoyed happy artistic careers. The Nabis’ nucleus was formed of the Academie Julian, which provided places for those pupils whom the Ecole des beaux-arts could not take. Bonnard , Denis, Ranson, Ibels, and Serusier studied at the former. Serusier had set up his easel at Pont-Aven one autumn day in 1888 and it was there, in the Bois d’Amour , that he met Gauguin who delivered to the spot a brief but shattering lecture: “That tree there is green isn’t it? Well then, use the loveliest green on your palette. And that shadow, almost blue? Paint it as blue as possible.” Whereupon as the legend goes, Serusier painted on the list of a cigar box “a crude landscape, synthetically composed of violet, vermillion, Veronese green and other pure colours squeezed straight from the tube without being mixed with white”. This, according to Denis , was the famous “talisman” which revealed to these serious and cultivated young painters artistic principals which became paramount. To the marvellous aesthetic creed which Serusier elaborated by working for a while at Le Pouldu with Gauguin, there quickly rallied several deserters from the Ecole des Beaux-arts: Roussel, Vuillard and Piot. The last recruits were Maillol then a painter, Felix Vallotton and the Dutch painter Verkade. Such was the total manpower of the Nabist movement. At that time it seemed that official art annulled the bond between style and ideal , for true style is inextricable from an artist’s personal vision and is diametrically opposed to all stereotyping. Conventional painting had become trapped into the status of consumer goods for a society whose demands reflected its own mediocrity and moral strictures (edifying scenes), licentious anecdotes (both historical and ribald) and covetousness. Denis postulated that a picture , taken at face value and seen in terms of its own particular properties , can express an artist’s sensibility as perfectly as music or poetry. This standpoint was important to Denis so he formulated what he called the theory of equivalents. “In place of the idea of ‘nature as seen through the individual temperament’ we have substituted the theory of equivalents and symbols: we contend that in an artist’s imagination, the emotions or states of mind aroused by any spectacle become signs or plastic equivalents capable of reproducing those emotions or states of mind , and that it is not necessary to supply a copy of the original spectacle; also that there should be an objective harmony corresponding to every state of sensibility and capable of expressing it.” In adopting the theory of equivalents in which “Symbol” was obviously a keyword, the Nabis paid tribute to contemporary literary and intellectual theories. As their various friendships testify, they were a highly cultured group and possessed of vast curiosity. In 1891 Bonnard, Denis, and Vuillard shared a studio wit Lugne-Poe at 28 rue Pigalle. Denis who worked on Remy de Gourmont’s Theodate, and especially Vuillard, took great interest in the problem of theatrical décor. The Theatre des Arts, founded by Paul Fort with their collaboration, Antoine’s Theatre Libre and Lugne-Poe’s Maison de l’Euvre (of which Vuillard was a director) all consulted Denis and Vuillard. From 1890 onwards the whole group frequently met at the offices of the Mercure de France and the Revue Blanche (under the management of the Natanson brothers) where Vuillard later exhibited his work. Apart from the obvious influence their artistic environment had upon them , the Nabis were most influenced by several great contemporary painters , by Gauguin in particular, by the Gauguin of Pont-Aven and the Yellow Christ which had aroused such admiration at the Café Volpini exhibition in 1889. It was to Gauguin that they owed their first impetus and the fundamental tenets of their aesthetic doctrine. Yet Nabist painting must not be confused with Gauguin’s: their refined manner, though parallel to primitivism in a speculative and indirect way , never shared Gauguin’s robust monumentality. Yet another and almost as persuasive a lesson aroused their interest; Japanese art. In April 1890 an exhibition of Japanese art was opened at the Ecole des beaux-arts: the Nabis visited it eagerly. Two other contemporary masters also attracted them: Odilon Redon (as a spiritual master) and Cezanne (aesthetic lucidity of his works). Despite various individual inclinations discernible right frim he start, the main tastes they had in common kept the group together until about 1900; after that each member followed his own path which in some cases , led far beyond original Nabist conceptions. They exhibited as a group from 1891 to 1896 at the Galerie de Le Barc de Bouteville, Ambroise Vollard, Durand-Ruel and Bernheim Jeune. Their work was also displayed at the Salon des Independants, at the Nationale des Beaux-Arts, and at Les XX in Brussels.
The Artists of the Group
Serusier had acted ad interpreter of Gauguin. It is therefore logical to suppose that of all the Nabis Serusier‘s work should be the most indebted to the master of Pont-Aven. He conscientiously applied himself to Cloisonnism, working with smooth layers of paint. He was even captivated, like Gauguin, with Brittany, the source of his favourite themes. He treated landscapes (The Sea at Le Pouldu), scenes from folklore (The Pardon) and imaginary scenes borrowed from literary Symbolism. Yet in temperament Serusier was completely different frim Gauguin, with none of his robustness or powerful gift for synthesis; he showed instead a certain slackness of line and a disregard for the vigorous effects of foreshortening. As a colourist , too , Serusier was less bold , although he had both taste and originality. He was a true Nabi in that he always attenuated, at almost extinguished, his effects. What, in fact, fundamentally distinguishes him frim Gauguin in his personal outlook on the world. Both were attracted to the archaic and primitive, but in Gauguin’s case archaism was a dimension immediately transmitted to him by the Landscape he was handling: his painting somehow served as a means of penetrating the powerful truth he discovered in a landscape. In Serusier’s case , however, archaism was more a lingering scent of “once upon a time” which he enjoyed imagining and transferring on to canvas. His painting recalls the melancholy atmosphere of eternally sunken legends.
In Maurice Denis the influence of Gauguin was tempered by the decisive influence of Puvis de Chavannes : although inspired by the latter’s discreetly assured and decorative, style, he rejected his ascetic palette in favour of a more individual colour technique composed of slim, even brushstrokes which create a fresh and delicate atmosphere composed of orange, pink, lilac and almond green. The resulting effect is rather ethereal, and to modern eyes dated, yet the charm, tenderness, innocence and enraptured earnestness of Denis’s style still strikes home. Besides, it was inevitable that with his particular gifts and logical turn of mind Denis should devote himself to the renewal of sacred art. In 1919 he co-founded, with Georges Desvallieres, the Ateliers d’art sacre and fervently concentrated on reviving religious art, extremely decadent in the 19th century.
The work of Edouard Vuillard is probably the most typical and exquisite testimony of Nabism extant. Up until 1900 Vuillard certainly put into practice the guiding principles of Nabism with more freedom, boldness and fidelity than any other member of the group. Hid first interest was in theatre décor; he them turned to poster art for the Theatre de l’Euvre, advertisement hoardings (such as the series of the Parisian parks) and lastly to painting . In many ways he found that Japanese art confirmed his particular gifts: the way in which perspective was abolished leaving lines and brushstrokes to suggest space. Yet Vuillard swiftly evolved a less deliberate style. His outlines lost their conciseness and his manner became freer and his brushstroke smudgier; objects and figures tended to merge into a decorative whole in which fabrics and wall paper play an important part, often creating a speckled fantasy. By 1900 he had reached his artistic maturity within Nabism. Without profaning his talent as an artist, he took up conservative attitude similar to that of Denis and Serusier . He examined Impressionism, traditional Dutch interior painting, the style of the 17th century French school and after 1900 turned his attention to Degas – all which injected new realism into his brand of intimism. From 1914 onwards he became absorbed in portraiture and in perfecting this genre, which provided excellent opportunity for his acute observation and informatory intent.
Bonnard, a “drop-out” law student, was a typical Parisian and also very attached to his background; but his affection for it filtered through an attentive sort of malice. He was more attracted by domestic scenes that by quaint interiors, and perhaps even more fascinated by street scenes and Parisian life. Of all the Nabis, Bonnard was supposedly the most influenced by the Japanese style. His palette is typical of Nabist asceticism and exults in dark greys and maroons. The majority of Bonnard’s work during his Nabist period consists of sketches, posters and lithographs whose minimal outlines freely reflect the artist’ lively vagaries. During the period from 1898 to 1912 Bonnard developed a liking for Degas and the Impressionism, and executed a series of nudes, landscapes and still-life studies. However, he never prided himself on realistically and exclusively analysing the quality of life. He must have realised that this technique had its limitations, for from 1912 to 1921 he gave more serious attention to form and consequently devoted more time to drawing, where his supple outlines give fluidity rather that immobility to form. Bonnard was the only Nabi capable of continuous evolution. In occasionally referring back to his precursors he was only looking for an answering echo to his own problems and also for the stimulus to surmount them.
Fairly late in joining the Nabis, Vallotton conscientiously followed the methods of the grout from about 1890 until 1900. Like Bonnard and Vuillard he examined the contemporary scene in portraits , genre scenes , street and beach scenes, with the occasional nude and landscape. However , his perspective was less fluid and more solid than theirs ,and consequently more akin to Gauguin’s . In his paintings, and to a greater extent in his lithographs and wood engravings, he also displayed an acid, somewhat ill-natured playfulness, which recalls in some measure the Expressionists.
Paul Ranson, one of the earliest Nabis, who unfortunately died a premature death. He indisputably possessed the same tendencies ad Denis and Serusier since he resembled them in his thoughtful temperament and taste for mystery which verged, probably due to Redon’s influence on fantasy and Symbolism. Nevertheless , his minutely realistic technique was never entirely free form convention. Ranson was a teacher by vocation, and in 1908 opened the academy which was named after him.
Art: Architecture, Painting, Sculpture, Graphics, Techniques, Bath, 2011.
Shone, Richard: The Post-Impressionism, London, 1979.