From the Esoteric to the Exoteric: Les Nabis and the Visual Link
While the aesthetic theory of Les Nabis painters was largely shaped by contemporary Symbolist literature and poetry, they also contributed to the Movement. The collective mission of Les Nabis nourished their artistic activity for a decade. As the individual style of each artist is diverse, it can be challenging to see the consistency in their art until uncovering the metaphysical unity among the members. In January of 1889, at the age of 18, Maurice Denis wrote, “Lord we are only a few young fellows, devotees of the Symbol, misunderstood by the world, which mocks us: Mystics! Lord, I pray, may our reign come to pass.”1 Denis’ prayer was, in large part, fulfilled. The Symbolist quest for universalism led Les Nabis to a style of unconscious abstraction.
This paper will employ an innovative approach to the artistic group Les Nabis by comparing their work to that of their literary influences such as Stéphane Mallarmé. Mallarmé believed art revealed the world, which only exists for that revelation. The single conclusion of art was a sacred ritual: for him this was expressed in words, for Les Nabis it was expressed in images. Both Mallarmé and Denis emphasized the transcendent quality of life through their art form, which was merely the external, fragmentary manifestation of a more significant whole. Paul Sérusier’s conception of the autonomous existence of the painted image, the expressive potential of every line, shape, and colour on the picture surface successfully provided a bridge from the esoteric function of art to the exoteric.
1 Claire Frèches-Thory, “Les Nabis, sources d’un mouvement,” in Die Nabis, Propheten der Moderne: Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, Henri-Gabriel Ibels, Georges Lacombe, Aristide Maillol, Paul-Elie Ranson, József Rippl-Rónai, Kerr-Xavier Roussel, Paul Sérusier, Félix Vallotton, Jan Verkade, Edouard Vuillard, ed. Claire Frèches-Thory and Ursula Perucchi-Petri (Munich: Prestel-Verlag, 1993), 14.
Keywords: Les Nabis, Symbolist Visual Art and Literature, Artistic Collectives, Role of Artists, Universal Visual Langauge
Fellow; Instructor, Art History, The University of Iowa