Paris Intense: The Nabis – from Bonnard to Vallotton

Christoph Bode reflects on a Munich exhibition of artists who rejected representation in favour of an emphasis on materiality

August 1, 2013

Paris Intense: The Nabis – from Bonnard to Vallotton
Neue Pinakothek, Munich
Until 30 September

In 1888 Paul Sérusier, a 24-year-old painter, formed a group of artists, mostly associated with the Académie Julian in Paris, who called themselves “the Nabis” – after the Hebrew word for “prophet” or “enlightened one”. Its most prominent members were Édouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard, Félix Vallotton, Maurice Denis and later the sculptor Aristide Maillol.

Their self-designation was only half-serious: true, they opposed the traditional style of the academy and the salons and saw themselves as a spiritual avant-garde. But much of their meetings – held in their “temples”, or ateliers – and more of their rituals displayed an agreeable degree of self-mockery, discernible in the Smurf-like names they gave themselves: Denis, the most spiritual, was called “the Nabi of beautiful icons”; Vuillard (because of his preference for interiors) “the Nabi intimiste”; Bonnard (an admirer of Japanese woodcuts) “the Nabi très japonard”; Paul-Élie Ranson “the Nabi plus japonard que le Nabi japonard”; Henri-Gabriel Ibels “the Nabi journaliste”; and the Swiss Vallotton “the Nabi étranger”. Self-importance was not one of their chief traits.

The group was held together by a network of strong friendships, most of which survived the eventual dissolution of the brotherhood around 1905. What they had in common was a new idea of painting that set them against the Impressionists (or at least against how they were seen at the time) and indicated a certain affinity with the Symbolists.

This shared idea was that you should paint not what you see but what you feel, as Paul Gauguin had remarked to Sérusier. “Understand a painting as a sum of chords, once and for all break away from any naturalist idea,” notes Vuillard in his diary. Bonnard reflects retrospectively: “The main subject of painting is the surface, which has its colours and its laws beyond its objects.” This common creed was wonderfully epitomised in Denis’ classic imperative of 1890: “Remember that a picture, before being a battle horse, a nude, an anecdote or whatnot, is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order.”

This philosophy frees painting from any representational function, although the art it fosters – “regardless of a sujet”, in the words of the writer and patron Harry Graf Kessler – does not yet leap into abstraction. Yet the how is foregrounded to such a degree that the what is relegated to the status of a prop. The subject matter of a painting serves as a mere pretext to arrange colours, forms and outlines in a certain way upon a canvas.

Vuillard’s L’Avenue is a good case in point: the street is recognisable all right. But that’s evidently not what this painting is all about. The meaning of the painting is definitely not “a street”. And it is in this rejection of representational art that the Nabis and the Symbolists are closest to each other: the meaning is not in what you see (or think you can identify). Rather, it is on the surface or in the materiality of the work of art – or beyond. Deep surface, some called it.

The same is obviously true for the Nabis’ interiors, of which there are so many. Take, for instance, Vuillard’s Salle à Manger – La Chaise Rouge. Again, this painting is demonstratively surface, colours upon a canvas – its supposed objects give only the cue for a painterly exploration that is free from the limiting constraints of representation.

That is why, ironically, one of the basic dichotomies in the works of the Nabis – paysages, meaning both landscapes and cityscapes, versus interiors (as in Vuillard’s series of lithographs Paysages et Intérieurs) – collapses under the common objective of a rejection of representation. If art is not about representation anyway, then it doesn’t really matter whether the objects that you think you can make out in these paintings are outdoors or indoors. That is immaterial.

The Nabis did not restrict themselves to pictures and sketches or to prints in small series. They produced commercial art, they printed posters, advertisements, leaflets and flyers, they illustrated magazines and books, designed interior decorations, fans, furniture and folding screens, as well as stage scenery – all as part of their plan to make the world safe for art. Their proximity to the Arts and Crafts Movement is therefore palpable – and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Art Nouveau are next of kin. For all their mumbo-jumbo secrecy, the Nabis were a public brotherhood, they were avant-garde and they were engagé.

For example, the disrespectful Revue Blanche – which claimed to be against all “fors” and for all “againsts” – published the lithographs of Bonnard, Vuillard and Denis. It was also the magazine that counted Paul Verlaine, Stéphane Mallarmé, Marcel Proust, André Gide and Claude Debussy among its authors. Even before they formed their brotherhood, Bonnard, Vuillard and Vallotton knew Mallarmé, and through him and his notorious Tuesday meetings they met Verlaine, Stefan George, James McNeill Whistler and Oscar Wilde – to name but a few. These were heady, scandalous days, and the Nabis were quite at the centre.

Not only were the Nabis in sync with Mallarmé’s revolutionary concept that verbal art should never denote: “There should only be allusions. To name an object, that means to suppress three quarters of the joy of a poem, which consists in finding out by guessing, step by step. To suggest only, that is the dream.”

They had also scandals of their own: in 1900, Bonnard made an artist’s book of Verlaine’s verse collection Parallèlement, originally published in 1889. Bonnard’s 109 rose-coloured lithographs constitute some of his finest work. But like his illustrations for Daphnis et Chloé (156 lithographs, 1902), what they suggest – the sexual love of two young girls in the former, the physical consummation of lifelong love in the latter – proved too much for some parts of the public, even in belle époque Paris. It goes to show that especially what is only suggested is in the eye of the beholder…

Paris Intense is the title of a series of zincographies by Vallotton. They are “all form, delineation, line and volume”, as he put it. They are also of an almost brutal, graphic power. Arguably, none of the Nabis stood closer to Charles Baudelaire than Vallotton, whose woodcut À Baudelaire, Le Beau Soir ou Les Cygnes (after Baudelaire’s famous poem, The Swan) seems a powerful, highly original variation on the theme of metropolitan alienation: in Les Cygnes, the swans seem to be fighting each other with unbridled aggression.

Paris was, according to Walter Benjamin, the capital of the 19th century. Some of these bleak black-and-white studies uncannily foreshadow the graphic art of Otto Dix or George Grosz. For me, Deuxième Bureau – the box office for second class – holds eerie premonitions of Ingmar Bergman’s 1977 film The Serpent’s Egg: behind the railings, the pent-up frustrations of the middle classes.

Paris Intense is also the title of an exquisite, medium-sized exhibition at the Neue Pinakothek, Munich, which displays the Nabis and some work of relevant contemporaries such as Gauguin, Paul Cézanne and Toulouse-Lautrec. Amazingly, the exhibits are almost entirely from the Pinakothek’s own holdings, with some valuable additions from other Bavarian collections.

Why Munich? Because Bavaria was among the first to buy contemporary French art on a large scale, primarily because of the initiative of the director of the Bavarian State Art Collections before the First World War, Hugo von Tschudi. The Nabis were brought to the Munich of Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc. A lost world – and yet, not quite. It is well worth a visit.

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