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  • gerard van weyenbergh

Nabis, a basic description

Updated: May 4, 2020

Disciples of Paul Gauguin, in whom they saw a messiah, the Nabis are first of all young Symbolist painters passionate about esotericism and spirituality. This club of five, formed in 1888 at the Académie Julian in Paris, consists mainly of Paul Sérusier, Maurice Denis, Pierre Bonnard, Ker-Xavier Roussel, and Paul-Élie Ranson, soon joined by Édouard Vuillard and a few other artists. They call themselves the Nabis ("prophets" in Hebrew), a term that translates their spiritual quest and aesthetic renewal. Inscribed in the history of post-impressionism but breaking with impressionism, the Nabi movement advocates a return to the imaginary and to subjectivity. The group broke up around 1900, each having taken different paths.

"Remember that a painting is essentially a flat surface covered with colors in a certain assembled order. »Maurice Denis

History of movement

It was in Brittany that it all started in 1888, when Paul Sérusier, passing through, got to know Emile Bernard and especially Paul Gauguin. The latter, who invented synthetism, gives him a lesson in painting. In essence, he teaches Paul Sérusier to detach himself from reality to follow his instinct and to represent reality in his way. This discovery is crucial. Paul Sérusier brings back to Paris the fruit of this lesson, which he shows to his comrades: the small canvas takes the name of Talisman. The young artists then chose the name of Nabis to distinguish themselves among the new avant-garde of their time, in particular the neo-impressionists (Georges Seurat, Paul Signac…). Claiming to be Symbolists, they developed an interest in spiritualism and theosophy.

In 1889, the exhibition of Paul Gauguin and synthetic painters at the Volpini café (on the sidelines of the Universal Exhibition) made a strong impression on the young Nabis and reinforced their convictions. The revival will go through the liberated use of colors and pictorial space. Refusing all illusionism, any perspective, they place themselves under the banner of Maurice Denis, who states, in 1890, "that a painting, before being a workhorse, a naked woman or any anecdote, is essentially a surface plane covered with colors in a certain assembled order ". According to them, what guides the painter's eye is not the nature but the spirit of the artist.

Maurice Denis stands out as the messenger of this group, more multifaceted than it seems. This one, indeed, is a Christian painter animated of great faith, while Edouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard are rather versed in the portrait and the interiors. Everyone's identity is also affirmed through nicknames: "The Nabi with a shiny beard" for Paul Sérusier, "The Nabi very Japanese" for Pierre Bonnard, "The Nabi with beautiful icons" for Maurice Denis… All cultivate great admiration for Japanese prints and claim the right of painting to be decorative. They thus work in various fields, such as illustration or theater.

The Parisian group is joined by certain foreign artists: the Swiss Félix Vallotton, the Dutchman Jan Verkade, the Hungarian József Rippl-Ronai. The Nabis also welcome Aristide Maillol and the sculptor Georges Lacombe. Around 1900, the group broke up, and each took a more personal path.

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