Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Nabis

"Remember that a picture before being a battle horse, a nude, an anecdote or whatnot, is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order."
                                                                      -  Maurice Denis, 1890

Maurice Denis, Climbing Mount Calvary, 1889
(Musee d'Orsay)

Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard, Paul Serusier, Maurice Denis and Ker Xavier Roussel were a group of eclectic painters that called themselves the Nabis.  They exemplified the cult-like character of Symbolism and they developed their own private language.   The name "Nabis" is from the Hebrew and Arabic word for "prophet."It was given to these artists by poet Henri Cavalis in response to the painters' aim to revitalize painting and become prophets of modern art.  They believed in the idea that art is decoration; for every emotion and thought there "existed a plastic decorative equivalent, a corresponding beauty."

According to the Nabi, painting was first and foremost a harmonious ensemble of lines and colors.  One area of color pattern had to be separated from one another by a line.  They were very influenced by Gauguin.  When Paul Serusier was sojourning in Pont Aven in the summer of 1888, Gauguin was advising him on painting this painting which was to become their talisman.  He was literally leaning over Serusier's shoulder, giving him directions like to paint nature as he saw it, and to use colors straight from the tube.  This image became a charm for them to look at for inspiration.

The Nabis tried to destroy the separation between the fine arts from the decorative arts and thus reunite arts and crafts.  They designed posters, illustrations, theater sets, screens, stained glass, textiles, and ceramics.  They were aspiring to see painting and sculpture as part of a decorative whole and erase the division between art and everyday life thorough the production of functional decorative objects. In time while they maintained their status as avant-garde painters, they also extended the function and language of painting through decoration.  They wished to move painting away from the public sphere into the private world of the interior.1  

Alberti's idea of a painting as a window into a world was not true anymore.  Art was about decoration.  They were thinking of expressing their own individuality by line and color, to create harmony where the subject matter was secondary.

1  Nicholas Watkins, "The Genesis of a Decorative Aesthetic"

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