Artworks and Artists of Les Nabis
Progression of Art
The Talisman, the River Aven at the Bois d'Amour
Painted on the lid of a cigar box, this work was painted under Paul Gauguin's direction in his Synthetist style of expressive color. Gauguin had encouraged Paul Sérusier to approach nature from a subjective point of view, instructing the artist to use colors straight from the tube rather than attempting to mix them and match them up to what he saw in nature. According to Maurice Denis, Gauguin had told Sérusier: "How do you see these trees? They are yellow. So, put in yellow; this shadow, rather blue, paint it with pure ultramarine; these red leaves? Put in vermilion." Yet, the painting is also different from the work of Gauguin. The result was far more abstract - a painted reality, the "equivalent" of that which is perceived by the artist - with flat areas of bold color. However, certain elements of the landscape remain recognizable: trees, the path, the riverbank, and the mill. On his return to Paris, Sérusier showed his young fellow painters, the future Nabis, what was to become their "Talisman": the "magical charm" for the group. The theorist of the Nabi group, Denis, explained that in front of this landscape, he and his friends felt "liberated from all the yokes that the idea of copying brought to [our] painters' instincts."
Oil on board - Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Paul Ranson in Nabi Costume
We know of very few portraits by Paul Sérusier, who specialized more in producing scenes of rural life in the Synthetist style of Paul Gauguin. The subject of the portrait, Paul Ranson, was a member of the Nabi group from the time it was set up by Sérusier in 1888, and is portrayed here in what seems to be a ceremonial costume. Recognizable by his goatee and lorgnon, he is depicted as deciphering the mysterious characters of a large manuscript. This is a clear example of the esotericism favored by certain Nabis, including Sérusier and Ranson. Moreover, the group used to meet in Ranson's studio in the Boulevarde du Montparnasse each Saturday. The studio was nicknamed "The Temple." There is no evidence that the Nabis actually wore this sort of garment; indeed, it is important to bear in mind that the Nabis' meetings at the "Temple" could also be lighthearted and farcical. However, the various symbols on Ranson's costume reveal Sérusier's interest in the occult. These include a five-pointed star decorating the crosier. This "pentogram," for example, could represent the mind or the head dominating the four limbs. Sérusier's painting, therefore, serves as a sort of document of the Nabis group in that it suggests the group's practices in a symbolic way.
Oil on canvas - Musée d'Orsay, Paris
This simple composition is based on flat shapes - including the flat, exotic patterns of Paul Gauguin - intense colors, and curving lines based on organic form. However, the subjects are Symbolist in character, and include the astral symbols of sun and moon hovering in the sky above the mountains (the celestial home of the gods), a bearded prophet figure or "Nabi" encased in a dark aura, (whom some have suggested represents the Hindu god Rama) wearing an ouroboros bracelet (the snake biting its tail), a peacock, and a phoenix-like bird - all symbols of the cyclical and eternal life - mounted by a female figure (possibly Sita, wife of Rama, coming back to earth). On the back of the painting are Arabic letters that spell out "Nabi." In this painting, Ranson reveals himself as the Nabi artist closest to the style of Art Nouveau, and the artist perhaps most seriously wedded to the kinds of obscure iconography taken from world religions, Celtic legends, and theosophy (a system of esoteric philosophy seeking direct knowledge of the mysteries of being and nature, particularly the nature of the divine).
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
Félix Vallotton's woodcut style was novel in its starkly reductive opposition of large masses of undifferentiated black and areas of unmodulated white. Vallotton emphasized outline and flat patterns, and generally eliminated the gradations of traditional modeling. In this work he was especially influenced by the Japanese woodcut; in fact, a large exhibition of these prints had been shown at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1890, and Vallotton, like many artists of his era, admired and collected them.
As in this example, the figure is not individualized, but serves as an image of an idea - indolence. The mood is quiet and the overall effect somewhat decorative, but executed with an economy of means. To the Nabi group Valloton contributed his work in the form of the modern woodcut. The many woodcuts he produced during the 1890s were recognized as innovative, and established him as a leader in the revival of true woodcut as an artistic medium rather than as a mere means of reproducing a drawn or painted work. Vallotton's woodcuts were widely disseminated in periodicals and books in Europe as well as in the United States, and have been suggested as a significant influence on the graphic art of Edvard Munch, Aubrey Beardsley, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.
Woodcut on paper - Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
La Revue Blanche
La Revue blanche, a journal of politically, artistically, and socially progressive ideas was founded by the Natanson brothers in 1889, and named after its white cover. The journal published the works of the most innovative writers and artists of the period, including Pierre Bonnard himself. Misia Godebska, the wife of Thadee Natanson, was possibly the model for the female figure in this poster and emblematic of the elegant Parisian reader of La Revue blanche.
Her silhouette dominates at the left, but is balanced by the abstract silhouette of the gentleman perusing periodicals in the background and the urchin-like figure of a boy in the right foreground. The stylish Parisienne holds a copy of La Revue blanche in one hand, as the boy gestures towards it with his thumb. Bonnard was particularly influenced by the Japanese color woodblock prints that had begun appearing in Europe in the late-19th century. He saw that their bold, asymmetrical, flat shapes could be adapted to the needs of poster design, which in the interest of advertising, had to be clearly "readable," yet "with the times." Also in the interest of advertising, lettering was a significant component and an integral part of the design - parts of the letters are even woven into the dress of the female figure.
Bonnard was the most gifted and productive graphic artist in the group of Nabi artists. Like other members of the Nabis, he believed in what he later called ''popular production.'' It is in such graphic works as this poster that Bonnard's avant-garde design concepts were made accessible to the public that was just being introduced to the new age of advertising.
Lithograph - Private Collection
Game of Shuttlecock
This lateral, frieze-like composition was part of a six-paneled work that was Vuillard's first decorative painting for a private residence. In 1892, Thadee Natanson's cousin Stephane persuaded his sister Leonie and her moneyed industrialist husband Paul Desmarais to commission this piece, perhaps as a means for Paul Desmarais to establish himself as a person of culture. This panel reveals how leisure activities were available to the upper classes at the time, and, in particular, demonstrates the freedom that the New Woman found in sports, which is reflected in the contemporary fashion that clothes Vuillard's figures. Gloria Groom has pointed to the female in the center left foreground, whose slim skirt line has added fullness at the lower back edge, alluding to the transition in fashion from the flounced bustle of the 1880s to the inverted lily shape skirts with the tailored jackets of the 1890s that allowed females to participate in sports. Her partner wears knickerbockers associated with cycling. Two domestics or chaperones appear at the left in their Sunday best, even if they do not have access to the same leisure activities as the upper crust. The roughened forms of all the figures almost seem to poke fun at the entire sport enterprise.
Vuillard, perhaps the least conventional Nabi at this time in terms of his grayed-down palette and coarse shapes, also contributed to the group a certain appreciation for the motifs of contemporary life, reflecting differences amongst the social classes.
Oil on canvas - Desmarais Collection, Paris