From the Esoteric to the Exoteric: Les Nabis and the Visual Link

By Crystal Gauger.

Published by The Arts Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

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

The International Journal of the Arts in Society, Volume 2, Issue 3, pp.23-30. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 1.714MB).

Crystal Gauger

Fellow; Instructor, Art History, The University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA, USA

Crystal Gauger is an art historian with a background in Ancient, Renaissance, and Early Modern Art and Architecture. Her primary interest is the long 19th Century, specifically the origins and praxis of Romanticism. Gauger strives to utilize a broad range of interdisciplinary methodologies and provide innovative approaches to over-looked topics. Such scholarship has been shared in recent conference papers as: Two Simple Cups: The Transcendence beyond the Enlightenment into Romantic Religiosity in Francisco Goya’s Self-Portrait with Dr. Arrieta, 1820 at The Romantic Spectacle Conference, Centre for Research in Romanticism, Roehampton University, London and Gnarled Romanticism and Nationalism in the Architecture and Frescoes of the Ludwigskirche, Munich (1829-40) at the Secrets and Lies: Narrative Approaches to Reality in German Literature and Culture, German Studies Conference at Stanford University. Gauger is currently working on a project entitled, Transcending History: The Religious Paintings Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres to comlete her doctorate. In addition to scholarship, she is interested in conducting research for exhibitions; and has served as an Assistant Exhibition Director Intern at the Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Trier, Germany.

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