Gauguin, Bonnard, Denis

Les Nabis and their contemporaries

Around 1900, Paris was the centre of artistic life in Europe. There were salon exhibitions everywhere, including many annual events. In Paris alone, several new salons began in the late nineteenth century, alongside the established Salon des Artistes Français: the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in 1862 (held annually from 1891 onwards), the independent Salon des Indépendants in 1884 and the Salon d’Automne in 1903. Every year, artists exhibited thousands of new paintings at these salons, in response to the overwhelming demand for cultural and artistic diversions.

Paul Gauguin, Sacred Spring: Sweet Dreams (Nave Nave Moe), 1894, oil on canvas, 74 x 100 cm © State Hermitage Museum St Petersburg

By the late nineteenth century, West European art had split into two branches moving in very different directions. While many visual artists were still producing traditional, realistic works, this period also contained the seeds of the future. The groundwork was gradually being laid for the tumultuous rise of the avant-garde in the early twentieth century.

The art scene was in constant flux, as artists did their best to outdo the competition with novel subjects and styles. France saw the emergence of a fully-fledged art supply industry. More and more young painters had canvases in standard sizes and used paint from readymade tubes rather than mixing their own. Art dealers kept a close eye on the progress of the young generation of artists. Besides Paul Durand-Ruel, without whom Impressionism could never have become such an influential movement in the late nineteenth century, other influential dealers included the brothers Bernheim and Ambroise Vollard. They played a decisive role in promoting the different strands of post-Impressionism, such as the Nabis, the Symbolists and painters such as Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin.

Artists striking out in new directions preferred to exhibit at the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts (often known simply as ‘the Salon’), which had Pierre Puvis de Chavannes as its second president and Odilon Redon as its third. Decorative painting was given a place there, and Symbolism – as practised by artists such as Gustave Moreau and Eugène Carrière – had no difficulty gaining a foothold. Even so, truly radical works were rarely to be found at the Salon. In 1895 the Nabi artists exhibited there, with Félix Vallotton and Maurice Denis leading the way. In 1901, Denis showed the painting Hommage à Cézanne there (made in 1900, now in the collection of the Musée d’Orsay). The Salon offered an excellent venue for painters like Charles Cottet, Maurice Lobre, Gaston La Touche, Paul-César Helleu, Lucien Simon and Maxime Dethomas. One very interesting section featured sculpture by Auguste Rodin, Auguste Maillol, Émile-Antoine Bourdelle and Paul-Albert Bartholomé. Nevertheless, the new generation of modern artists – like the Impressionists before them – wrestled with the question of where to exhibit their paintings, because the Salon was very reluctant to open its doors to anything deviating from the academic standard. This problem was solved when the Salon des Indépendants opened its doors in Paris in 1884. This new salon was open to any artist who wished to exhibit there. Its motto, ‘Neither juries nor awards’, appealed to some, but frightened off others who did not want their work on display beside that of some amateur. Vincent van Gogh also sent his paintings to the Indépendants from Arles and Saint-Rémy. But his works attracted no special attention from the public, going almost unnoticed among art lovers of the period; they may have been regarded as amateur efforts. The Neo-Impressionists were also represented at the Indépendants. Georges Seurat and Paul Signac were the pioneers of this movement, later followed by Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard, Ker-Xavier Roussel, Maurice Denis and Félix Vallotton.

Félix Vallotton, Woman at a Piano, 1904, oil on canvas, 43.5 x 57 cm © State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

The Symbolists

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824–1898) is generally seen as the leading Symbolist artist. This master painter, who based his allegorical works on long-established traditions, was looked up to as an example by modern artists of all stripes, from the Impressionists and Gauguin to the founding members of the avant-garde. One striking figure among the young Symbolists was Maurice Denis, known as the Nabi aux belles icônes (‘Nabi of the beautiful icons’), but he had no intention of abandoning his Nabi comrades.

In France, the neighbouring countries of Belgium and Germany, and far-off Russia, Symbolism developed concurrently in painting and in literature. In the world of painting, the Impressionists and their artistic heirs preferred reality to legends, visions and fantasies. Mysticism, life after death, abstraction, flirtation with religious faith, and esoteric philosophy were subjects utterly foreign to Degas, Renoir, Monet and Pissarro, and held little attraction for their successors Bonnard, Vuillard, Roussel and Vallotton. Only Denis and Sérusier incorporated Symbolist elements into their work.

The beginnings of the Nabis

In 1888 Paul Sérusier brought an exceptional painting back from Brittany after a stay there with Gauguin. Sérusier, who had been his group’s massier (student leader) at the Académie Julian, a studio where novice painters received on-the-job training in exchange for tuition, showed his friends his new work Talisman (collection of the Musée d’Orsay, Paris). He had painted this small composition on the lid of a cigar box in Brittany, following Gauguin’s instructions to the letter. Gauguin had also taught Sérusier to use unmixed colours as much as possible. For Denis, Bonnard and other future Nabi painters, this was a true revelation. Denis, who was twenty years old at the time, later summarised what they had learned: ‘Recall that a painting, before it is a warhorse, a nude woman or some anecdote or other, is essentially a flat surface covered with colours in a particular arrangement’ (1890).

The work of the Nabi painters is characterised by the absence of linear perspective, the accumulation of colour fields, and the use of contours and unmixed colours, generally from a brightly coloured palette. Their subjects include Arcadian scenes and other landscapes, cityscapes, interiors and scenes from everyday life. They were also ambitious decorative painters. Bonnard and Denis, for example, painted the interiors of government buildings and of the private homes of wealthy patrons, striving to blur the boundary between high and low art. Both developed into first-class decorative painters. Twenty years after the foundation of Les Nabis, they painted beautiful wall panels in the mansion of the Moscow industrialist and collector Ivan Morozov (1871–1921). These extraordinary decorative works are among the highlights of the current exhibition, Gauguin, Bonnard, Denis: A Russian Taste for French Art.

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Woman on the Beach, 1887, oil on paper, pasted on canvas, 75.3 x 74.5 cm © State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Morozov and Shchukin

In this exhibition, works from the collection of Ivan Morozov are predominant – unlike in From Matisse to Malevich (2010), where most of the paintings came from the collection of Sergei Shchukin. In their early days, the two Moscow collections were similar in nature; both collectors amassed valuable sets of French Impressionist works. Later on, however, they steered somewhat different courses. As soon as Sergei Shchukin, who was not afraid to venture into unknown territory, discovered Matisse and Fauvism, he ordered radically original decorative paintings from Matisse, such as The Red Room (Harmony in Red), Family Portrait, The Dance and The Music. Shchukin was truly surprised at the more conservative stance of his friend and rival Morozov, which he attributed to the Russian painters who advised Morozov on his purchases. Shchukin was a more independent-minded collector. Morozov did make some bold acquisitions, but he pondered each step carefully in advance, not taking any hasty decisions. Schchukin paid little thought to Bonnard, seeing him as little more than a follower of Monet and Pissarro, while Morozov quickly recognised the painter’s great originality. Schchukin’s early purchases included many works by Symbolists such as Firmin Maglin, Alfred Guilloux, Gaston La Touche, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and Eugène Carrière. But they eventually had to give up their wall space to other artists, and only Puvis’s The poor fisherman remained on display. Schchukin did remain loyal to Maurice Denis, even though he was not especially enthusiastic about The Story of Cupid and Psyche, which Denis had painted for Morozov.

For Ivan Morozov, there was no finer painter than Pierre Bonnard. He owned not only Bonnard’s early Landscape in Dauphiné, with its subtle, attractive gradations of colour, but also later pieces such as Train and Barges, which seem nondescript at first but leave a deep impression. The collector, who had done some landscape painting of his own in his youth, was most drawn to nature scenes with unobtrusive yet unmistakable contemporary elements. The great successes of Bonnard and his patron included the Paris pendants (Morning in Paris and Evening in Paris) and, of course, the triptych The Mediterranean, one of the great decorative paintings of the early twentieth century.

Auguste Rodin, The Sinful Woman (The Repentant). Study, c. 1885 © State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

The Nabis

Most of this exhibition is devoted to the Nabis: Bonnard (the Nabi Japonard or ‘Japanesque Nabi’), Denis (the Nabi aux belles icônes), Vuillard, Roussel and Vallotton (the Nabi étranger or ‘foreign Nabi’). In a conversation with Henri Matisse, Pierre Bonnard once called himself ‘the last Impressionist’. This reflected his understanding that the Impressionist method had exhausted its potential. That helps to explain why the Nabi painters, despite their individual talents, never managed to convince other painters to join their group. Many painters dreamed of radical changes. As Bonnard himself said, ‘When my friends and I decided to carry on the investigations of the Impressionists and tried to build on their achievements, we did our best to move beyond their naturalistic impressions of colour. We took a more rigorous approach to composition. There was much to be gained from colour as a means of expression. But developments ran ahead of us. Society began preparing itself for the arrival of Cubism and Surrealism, before we had achieved our envisaged goal. We found ourselves, so to speak, suspended in mid-air.’

Édouard Vuillard, In a Room, 1899, oil on cardboard, pasted on panel, 52 x 79 cm © State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Bonnard and Denis were both in search of a way out of the crisis in painting as they perceived it, a crisis to which most of their contemporaries were oblivious. Gauguin, too, was exploring a new path: folk art traditions with their roots in the perceived purity of Europe’s Middle Ages and in the cultures of ‘primitive’, ‘unspoiled’ peoples such as those of Polynesia. Redon drew on images from the Far East and delved into the depths of the unconscious mind.

The Nabis had stylistic points of contact with these artists, but they inhabited a different world, a mild, benevolent ‘domestic’ reality. This is what brings such charm to Denis’s depictions of motherhood, Bonnard’s lively clutches of children, Roussel’s country festivals and Vuillard and Vallotton’s interiors. Although the motifs of Gauguin and Redon show strong resemblances to those of the Nabis, their canvases evoke entirely different emotions. What makes the Nabi painters unique, however, is that in spite of all their differences they always treated each other with sympathy and respect.

The works on display in this exhibition are drawn from the collection of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. This collection – like those in other museums, even the very largest – is not without its gaps. Our top priority has been for the exhibition as a whole to be as attractive as possible. In this case, that meant bringing almost the entire collection of Nabi art from St. Petersburg to Amsterdam. This has never been done before for any exhibition outside Russia. Nor is it likely to happen again soon, considering that in 2014 the State Hermitage Museum will open its new wing in the General Staff Building opposite the Winter Palace. The collections of Morozov and Schchukin will have a fitting and permanent home there.

Édouard Vuillard, Children, 1909, tempera on paper, glued onto canvas, 84.5 x 77.7 cm © State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

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Photo Janiek Dam

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