Les Nabis is a pictorial movement that arose in France in the late nineteenth century by a group of young artists, all born between 1860 and 1870: Maurice Denis (1870-1943), Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940), Aristide Maillol, Felix Vallotton, Paul-Elie Ranson (1861-1909), Jan Verkade, Ker Xavier Roussel, G. Lacombe. The term, chosen by the painter F.-A. Cazalis (or by P. Sérusier), is of Hebrew origin and means “prophets”, “enlightened”: on the one hand it evokes the “second sight” of the romantic mystics, on the other hand it has an ironic flavor, reflecting the burlesque taste of the ateliers.
Close to Maeterlinck and Jarry as well as to the “magicians” of the Rosicrucians or to the humor of Toulouse-Lautrec, these artists are part of the second generation of French Symbolism, of which they constitute the most advanced moment; They too rejected Impressionism, which they considered too “retinal”, and considered themselves disciples of Gauguin, who they discovered thanks to the famous “talisman”, as a small landscape painted in pure colors by Sérusier in Pont-Aven under Gauguin’s guidance was called, and brought to Paris in 1888, where it immediately became a sort of manifesto for the group.
The exhibition of Gauguin and the Café Volpini in the following year gave the Nabis the opportunity to get to know the “master” better. The members of the group, whose exhibitions took place between 1891 and 1899, often met in Ranson’s studio, called the “Temple”, in the workshop of “father” Tanguy, in the editorial office of the “Revue Blanche”, and the Théâtre de l’Oeuvre. Puvis de Chavannes, Odilon Redon, popular and “primitive” art and the Japanese were their points of reference; synthesis, decoration, arabesque, suggestion, deformation, expression, symbol were their watchwords. The crisis of the easel painting and the revaluation of craftsmanship pushed them to practice the “applied” arts: stamps, playing cards, puppets, posters, screens, tapestries, stained glass, wallpaper, etc.. With their illustrations (lithographs, wood engravings) they anticipated the rebirth of the art of the book, while thanks to their friendship with Lugné-Poe, founder of the Théâtre de l’Oeuvre, they were able to renew the art of stage design. Their predilection for wall decorations, treated in a two-dimensional way as tapestries, became the pretext for a series of technical experiments (opaque painting, glue, essence of turpentine, tempera) whose ultimate goal was always the enhancement of the surface-support (cardboard, wall).
In the choice of subjects, finally, two divergent strands are identifiable from the beginning: on the one hand the scenes of interiors or Parisian life in the line of Baudelairian “modernity”, on the other hand the literary, mystical-catholic or mythological allusions of a new historical painting, the cohesion of the movement could not resist long to the diversity of temperaments and tastes. After 1900, each followed his own path: the “fauve” impressionism of Bonnard, the “Pompeian” impressionism of Roussel, the bourgeois intimism of Vuillard, the neo-academism of Maillol and Denis, the monastic asceticism of Verkade, the aggressive realism of Vallotton, sanctioned the dispersion of the group.
The balance of its heroic years is however much more positive than the predictions of theorists (Sérusier, Denis): with the emphasis on the flat surface, with the experiments on the format and the framing, the sinuous articulation, the game stain-contour, the Nabis helped to define new pictorial spaces that marked the advent of art nouveau. The rejection of the picture-window constitutes a decisive step in the contestation of the image imposed by modern art; with the ambiguities of an unstable segregation of the visual field, with the saturation of the background that absorbs the figures and deceives the eye, the first Nabiism founds a critical and reflective dimension that recalls the poetics of Mallarmé, placing precisely in the difficulty of reading the profound meaning of the work and opening a path that Klimt, the Cubists and Pop Art have not finished exploring.
As mentioned earlier, the Nabis represent in the history of painting a group of distinct personalities, rather than an authentic common aesthetic program. A certain similarity of tone and style brought together, from 1889 and for about a decade, painters as diverse as Vallotton and Bonnard, Ker Xavier Roussel and Maurice Denis, Maillol and Lacombe, or Vuillard, Verkade and Sérusier. In the latter, and through him in Gauguin and Emile Bernard, the origins of the group are to be sought. Sérusier, a “student-econome” at the Académie Julian, met Gauguin at Pont-Aven in September 1888; in the previous summer the future painter of the tropics, stimulated by the presence of the young Emile Bernard, had elaborated his theories of the moment: cloisonnisme and synthetism.
Sérusier’s spiritualistic and didactic temperament made him an enthusiastic follower and an excellent propagandist of Gauguin’s theses: he painted in the Amour wood at Pont-Aven, under Gauguin’s direction, what he would call the Talisman, a cigar box bottom covered with areas of pure, flat color. Returning to the Académie Julian the following month, he “converted” the young pupils Bonnard, Denis, Ibels and Ranson, who included in the group some of their friends from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Roussel and Vuillard; then, in 1891, the Dutchman Verkade and the Dane Ballin.
In 1892 they were joined by Lacombe, the Hungarian Rippl-Ronai, Maillol and the Swiss Vallotton. From the beginning, the initiatory and sacred character of the Nabis’ aesthetic is evident. Symbolism, in its spiritualist phase, was common ground for the young people of the Académie Julian, when they were not participating in the Rosicrucian group. But with as much seriousness as humor they called themselves “nabîm”, a name found by their companion Cazalis, and they considered themselves a confraternity determined to rediscover the pure sources of art, after the effusions of Impressionism, which they judged to be too tied to the sensible and therefore superficial.
Sérusier was the catalyst of the moment, and the symbolist critic Albert Aurier was one of its first defenders; Maurice Denis, however, was its theorist, in a clear and brilliant article, written when he was only twenty years old: Définition du néo-traditionnisme (“Art et critique”, 1890), where the famous formula appears according to which the painting, “before being a battle horse, a naked woman or any anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colors put together in a certain order”.
For Maurice Denis, as for his companions, painting must be an interpretation of nature “by choice and by synthesis”, in a spirit similar to that of the Pre-Raphaelites, although less literal as far as the past is concerned: “I confess that Angelico’s predellas in the Louvre, Ghirlandaio’s Man in Red and some other works by primitives remind me of nature more accurately than Giorgione, Raphael, Leonardo”.
For the Nabis, the science of modeling and perspective as they are taught by the Italian sixteenth century onwards spoil what they aim to find: “the salvation of primitive sensation”, where the sincere emotion is translated with the arabesque in flat, with the pure color, with the rhythmic harmonies, Denis cites their sources: “the medieval stained glass, Japanese prints, Egyptian painting.
Among their contemporaries, the young painters turn to Puvis de Chavannes, Gauguin and Anquetin. They seek, starting from the most humble subjects, “modern icons”, since “art is the sanctification of nature, of that nature of all those who are content to live”. On such common grounds, the works of the Nabis are quite different. In artists such as Ranson or Maurice Denis, pure color and decorative arabesques support a literary and symbolist iconography (Denis, Soir Trinitaire, 1890: Louveciennes, coll. priv.), indeed penetrated with religiosity (The Catholic Mystery, 1890: coll. Denis).
In Vallotton, linguistic simplification is nourished by fierce observation (Bathing on a Summer’s Evening, 1892: Zurich, Kunsthaus); in Bonnard and Vuillard, it is nourished by intimist grace and humor. Bonnard, who was nicknamed “very Japanese nabi” by his friends, in fact took from Japanese prints the colorful arabesques, the abbreviated stroke and the taste for calligraphy integrated into the composition: Miss Rabbits (1891: New York, coll. Rubin) or Family Scenes (lithograph, 1892).
Responding to the demands of Aurier, for whom “true painting is decorative painting” (“Mercure de France”, March 1890), Vuillard brought his most astonishing decorations to the Nabis’ language: be it the six panels executed for Paul Desmarais in 1892, or the eight large scenes in public gardens commissioned by Alexandre Natanson in 1894, five of which are now in the Louvre in Paris (Museum of Modern Art).
The Nabis were in fact part of the general European movement of the late 19th century that sought to break down the barriers between decorative art and easel painting by developing a new art form. They are particularly interested in the press and posters (Bonnard, posters for “France Champagne”, 1891, for the “Revue blanche”, 1894; Vuillard, lithography for “Bécane”, 1894); with drawings and caricatures they collaborate with numerous newspapers (in particular Bonnard, Ibels and Vallotton) and illustrate numerous volumes: Maurice Denis Le Voyage d’Urien by André Gide (1893); Vallotton La Maîtresse by Jules Renard (1896) and Le livre des masques by Rémy de Gourmont (1897); Bonnard Parallèlement by Verlaine (1900).
Ranson and Maillol have tapestries executed on their own cartoons, and Vuillard even prepares designs for stained glass windows. The Nabis also participate in the theatrical world and draw numerous posters and programs for the Art Theatre of Paul Fort, and especially for the Théâtre de l’OEuvre of Lugné-Poe. They regularly expose in group to the Indépendants, at Le Barc de Bouteville in rue Le Pelletier, thirteen times between 1891 and 1896; then at Ambroise Vollard. Their personal exhibitions take place at the friends of the “Revue blanche”, whose favorite painters they are. On the other hand, the dissolution of the magazine in 1903 coincides with the dispersion of the group, or rather – since the former Nabis will remain linked to each other throughout their lives – with the moment in which, after thirty years, each of them follows his own path, which brings out the peculiarities and divergences: “A period in the history of painting was over, which they marked with their mark and filled with their elegance” (Antoine Terrasse).