The end of the 19th century, or fin de siècle as it is commonly described with this French term, was marked by numerous shifts on a global scale. On one hand, mesmerized by the rapid technological growth and industrialization, some firmly believed that the world was going to be a better place, while on the other, there were others skeptical of those processes as they saw the fall of civilization.
Those concerns and the rejection of rationalism and the bourgeois society were mostly expressed through arts; artists stood for irrationalism and the subjective, and although their efforts enabled further development of modern art, they are also perceived as controversial for influencing fascism.
When it comes to visual arts, one of the most influential movements of this period was Les Nabis. Active from 1888 until 1900, it gathered a group of young French artists, namely Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, Édouard Vuillard, Ker-Xavier Roussel, Paul Ranson, Félix Vallotton, and Paul Sérusier, aiming to dismantle the Impressionist and academic art by plunged into experimentation and empowering early movements of modernism.
Most of the artists belonging to the group were students at the Académie Julian in Paris who shared the same fascination with the painterly domains of Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin. After the two established painters, Les Nabis firmly believed that an artwork shouldn’t in any case be just a mere depiction of nature, but a result of an artist’s expression of symbols and metaphors.
The group’s name "Les Nabis" was extracted by the linguist Auguste Cazalis in 1888 from a Hebrew term nebiim, meaning "prophet." The chosen word indicated the artists' decision to revitalize painting in the same way the ancient prophets restored Israel.
The painting marked as the first official Les Nabis artwork was produced by Paul Sérusier in October of 1888 under the guidance of Paul Gauguin. The small and rather abstract painting on wood called The Talisman gradually became the celebrated icon of 20th-century art. In 1889, the same year the Paris International Exposition and the Eiffel Tower opened for public, the group presented its first exposition at the Café des Arts under the title The Impressionist and Synthesist Group.
The following year, under the alias Pierre Louis, Maurice Denis, who was only eighteen years old at the time, wrote Les Nabis Manifesto titled The Definition of Neo-traditionalism; the essay published at the journal Art et Critique proposed the bold phrase "neo-traditionalism" and expressed, among other things, the opposition to the "progressivism" of the Neo-impressionists.
In 1891, Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard, and Maurice Denis, three proponents of the Nabis, took a studio in Paris, attracting their peers Ker-Xavier Roussel and Paul Sérusier, journalists, as well as the figures from the theatrical and literary world. Les Nabis gradually started expressing themselves in other artistic disciplines, so Paul Ranson, Sérusier, Bonnard, and Vuillard, made the sets for a theatrical production of Arthur Rimbaud’s the Bateau ivre in 1892, while Maurice Denis made sets and costumes for the Trilogy d'Antoina at the Théatre Moderne.
The group was primarily influenced by Japonism, the graphic art of Japan, and especially by woodblock prints. In the local context, this particular style was championed by the French art dealer Siegfried Bing, who traveled frequently to Japan to collect prints and published the art journal, Le Japon Artistique, between 1888 and 1891. The painter most fascinated by the Japanese aesthetic was Pierre Bonnard, nicknamed by his fellow Nabis as Le plus japonard.
Practically all the members of the group were transfixed by interiors and the theme of women in a garden, stylistically adapted from Japanese prints. Alongside the influences coming from the symbolist movement (they cherished the works by Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Edgar Allan Poe), all the Nabis were very much drawn to mysticism and esotericism, while only Paul Sérusier and Maurice Denis painted religious themes inspired by Fra Angelico and other Old Masters.
For instance, Sérusier’s paintings La Vision pros du torrent or The rendezvous of fairies (1897), showing a group of women in Breton costumes passing through the forest, and Denis’ series of commissioned paintings The Legend of Saint Hubert perfectly illustrate their exploration of religious imagery.
Les Nabis expressed themselves by using all media from oils on canvas and cardboard, and wall decoration, to graphic arts (posters, prints, book illustrations), textiles, and furniture. During the early years of their existence, the group’s approach was mostly representational, but unmistakably design-oriented after the Japanese prints and Art Nouveau.
Interestingly so, during the movement’s activity, Les Nabis operated as a semi-secret society and they used humorous nicknames, special vocabulary, and named the studio 'ergasterium' and ended their letters with the initials E.T.P.M.V. et M.P., signifying "En ta paume, mon verbe et ma pensée" (In your palm, my word, and my thoughts). Looking from a contemporary stance, this kind of behavior is very close to the sensibility of the later avant-garde movements such as Dadaism or Surrealism, or even the subcultures of the 1950s and 1960s.
On the other hand, the first successors of Les Nabis (Fauvists, Expressionists, and Cubist) perceived their ideas as conservative as they stayed loyal to the artistic tradition of the Impressionists. Although short-lived, and apparently not particularly interesting to the new generation of artists, Les Nabis hold a significant place in art history for the already mentioned reasons, but especially for their contribution to modernity.
Featured image: Maurice Denis - Soir de septembre (September evening), 1891. Oil on canvas. Collection Musée d'Orsay. Image creative commons.