Les Nabis – The High Priests in Art

Started as a movement by Paul Sérusier in the late nineteenth century, the main motive of this form of art was to indulge in paintings that also portray the soul of the artist. The movement was well aligned towards the post-impressionists, who had a sense of colors while also using both urban and rural lifestyle to portray their work. Nabi historian Charles Chassé said, “A picture had to mean only when it possessed ‘style,” helping artists mold shapes that may also relate their art to their own personalities.

The “brotherhood” as the Nabi’s artists thought of themselves, included many major artists who brought symbolism forward. Apart from Paul Sérusier, the originator of the movement, other notable artists included Paul Ranson, the social “glue” of the group, the Swiss artist Félix Vallotton, Maurice Denis, Édouard Vuillard, Vuillard’s brother-in-law Ker-Xavier Roussel, Pierre Bonnard and the two sculptors Aristide Maillol and Georges Lacombe. Denis used to write articles about the Nabi or the Prophet’s movement. The rejection of naturalism and the inclusion of symbolism brought a new level of spirituality to their work. Denis is also highly acclaimed for having made one of the pivotal statements that got seized by modernist painters of the twentieth century. He said, “A picture – before being a war-horse, a female nude, or some anecdote – is essentially a flat surface covered with colors in a particular order.” Although Sérusier was highly motivated by the instructions given by Gauguin, there was a high contrast in the work found between the two. Denis takes into account the teaching provided by Gauguin but still goes beyond the use of pure colors to colors that are harmless to nature.

Amongst the most prominent of works found in the Nabi’s movement, the artwork of Sérusier holds significance. His work he designed in the beginning of 1888, The Talisman, the River Aven at the Bois d’Amour started the movement in the first place. It was painted on the lid of a cigar box. It was also the first work under the direct guidance of Paul Gauguin’s style of expressive color. Gauguin encouraged Sérusier to use colors straight from the tube rather than mixing them and match them to what he saw in nature. Gauguin asked Sérusier: “How do you see these trees? They are yellow. So, put in yellow; this shadow, rather blue, paint it with pure ultramarine; these red leaves? Put in vermilion.”

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