The Artistic Priests

The Talisman, the River Aven at the Bois d’Amour by Paul Sérusier, 1888. Oil on board. Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France

The Artistic Priests
Movement: Les Nabis
Started: 1880
Ended: 1910

Les Nabis (originating from the Hebrew and Arabic term for prophets) were a cult group of the Symbolist movement founded by Paul Sérusier by organising his friends into a secret society. The group wanted to connect with higher powers and saw the artists as high priests and seers who had the ability to reveal the invisible. Within Les Nabis artists were creators of subjective imagery deeply rooted in the soul of the artist. While subject matter varied between individual artists they all followed formal tenets including the concept that a painting was a harmonious combination of lines and colours. The subjectivity and artistic individuality was accomplished through the choice of how lines and colours were arranged.

Les Nabis group grew from the work of Paul Gauguin, literary theory, and Symbolism – especially the concept that colour and shape represented experience. Les Nabis artists considered themselves initiates of a brotherhood devoted to exploring the purest sources of art, personally and spiritually, seizing on the mysterious and mystical even if the subject related to the mundane and every day.

Nabi Landscape by Paul Ranson, 1890. Oil on canvas. Private Collection

Les Nabis expanded their aesthetic style into applied arts, including murals, posters, decorative screens, illustrations, and theatre design. The interest in decorative art was part of the retreat into beauty and aesthetics in the late 19th century and the ensuing taste for abstraction within the age of advertising.

Through the artist Émile Bernard, Sérusier reluctantly met Gauguin at Pont-Aven in the summer of 1888. Together they visited a beautiful natural area of Bois d’Amour. Under the guidance of Gauguin and his Synthesist technique, Sérusier painted The Talisman. On returning to Paris he started preaching this new style. Sérusier was also influenced by the current ideas circulating amongst the Symbolists including the Neoplatonic philosophy combining Pagan and Christian thought with other spiritual directions. Sérusier organised his friends into a secret society – Les Nabis. The group met at the home of Paul Ranson on Saturdays, and Ranson served as the social connection holding the group together.

Amongst the most noted Nabis, Sérusier and Ranson were the most mystical, serious, philosophical, and Neo-Catholic, reviving sacred art and studying theosophy. Ranson’s work bears the closest resemblance of all the Les Nabis to the decorative and organic style of Art Nouveau. Vallatton, the Swiss artist and anarchist created portraits of Symbolist writers and in the 1890s created high-quality wood engravings. Roussel, another anarchist, focused on mythological subjects, combining the Rococo style of the 18th century with the interests of the fin-de-siecle – a form of drawing-room paganism.

La Revue Blanche by Pierre Bonnard, 1894. Lithograph. Private Collection

In several articles outlining Les Nabis ideas, Denis saw Symbolism and its rejection of Naturalism and its leaning towards abstraction as a means of spirituality, the feeling that a work of art is derived from the soul of the artist. Denis is also famous for one of the key statements of modernist painters of the 20th century – ‘A picture – before being a warhorse, a female nude, or some anecdote – is essentially a flat surface covered in a particular order.’

Among the most significant artists of the Les Nabis were Bannard and Vuillard who shared a studio at the foot of the Montmartre and both were keen readers of the French symbolist poet Stephane Mallarme. Bannard created several graphic works including the cover of La Revue Blanche (1895) and a number of book illustrations. He ascribed the Nabi doctrine of abandoning three-dimensional modelling for flat areas of colour; however, he didn’t follow the Symbolist subjects as chosen by others of the group. Vuillard’s Au Lit (1891) depicted flat areas evenly painted in, revealing the influence of Denis’ ideas, but he is best known for his interior scenes depicting a system of value tones and surface patterns.

Paul Ranson in Nabi Costume by Paul Sérusier, 1890. Oil on canvas. Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France

Bonnard and Vuillard had a greater interest in fashionable Symbolist milieu with the talk about Neo-Platonism and Mallarme taking place as well as the fashionable women in attendance. Vuillard became a painter for Misia Sert, the wife of the editor of La Revue Blanche. Frequently described as intimist Bonnard and Vuillard’s work consisted of contemporary paintings of the daily life around them rather than remote people or biblical scenes, myths and or transcendental imagery.

As one by one the group members became more conservative the movement fell apart. Villard, catered to his upper-class patrons, turned to a more naturalistic and conventional style whilst Bonnard seldom exhibited his work after 1914

Game of Shuttlecock by Édouard Vuillard, 1892. Oil on canvas. Desmarais Collection, Paris, France

Vuillard, Bonnard, and Roussel renounced the Nabi doctrines for their own personal styles. Ranson and Sérusier upheld the Nabi aesthetic, and Ranson and his wife Marie-France founded the Academie Ranson to further its influence. There were many students but none attained the stature of the original Nabis

2 thoughts on “The Artistic Priests

  1. Rivetting! I had heard of some of these artists and styles, but not this particular movement. A great introduction and some terrific images too. I will be looking into this more!

    Liked by 1 person

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