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Les Nabis

Les Nabis Collage
Started: 1880's
Ended: 1910's
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Summary of Les Nabis

The Nabis (from the Hebrew and Arabic term for "prophets,") were a Symbolist, cult-like group founded by Paul Sérusier, who organized his friends into a secret society. Wanting to be in touch with a higher power, this group felt that the artist could serve as a "high priest" and "seer" with the power to reveal the invisible. The Nabis felt that as artists they were creators of a subjective art that was deeply rooted in the soul of the artist. While the works of the Nabis differed in subject matter from one another, they all ascribed to certain formal tenets - for example, the idea that a painting was a harmonious grouping of lines and colors. This one idea, however, produced many different solutions. The subjectivity and what might be called the artist's personal style was, in fact, accomplished through the choice of how to arrange these lines and colors. As an example of the Nabi approach, at the beginning of their meetings, they would recite the following "mantra" together: "sounds, colors, and words have a miraculously expressive power beyond all representation and even beyond the literal meaning of the words."

Key Ideas

Key Artists

Overview of Les Nabis

Les Nabis Image

When in the summer of 1888, Sérusier first visited Pont-Aven, he at reluctantly (thinking Gauguin too avant-garde) agreed to meet Gauguin through the artist Émile Bernard. Together they visited a beautiful natural area called the Bois d'Amour where, under the direct guidance of Gauguin and his Synthetist technique, Sérusier painted the work that he brought back to Paris and named The Talisman (1888). He thereupon decided to preach this new style to his own group of friends. Around the same time, Sérusier was also influenced by the current ideas circulating amongst the Symbolists including Neoplatonic philosophy, which combined pagan and Christian thought, and other spiritual directions.

Important Art and Artists of Les Nabis

Paul Sérusier: The Talisman, the River Aven at the Bois d'Amour (1888)

The Talisman, the River Aven at the Bois d'Amour (1888)

Artist: Paul Sérusier

Painted on the lid of a cigar box, this work was painted under Paul Gauguin's direction in his Synthetist style of expressive color. Gauguin had encouraged Paul Sérusier to approach nature from a subjective point of view, instructing the artist to use colors straight from the tube rather than attempting to mix them and match them up to what he saw in nature. According to Maurice Denis, Gauguin had told 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." Yet, the painting is also different from the work of Gauguin. The result was far more abstract - a painted reality, the "equivalent" of that which is perceived by the artist - with flat areas of bold color. However, certain elements of the landscape remain recognizable: trees, the path, the riverbank, and the mill. On his return to Paris, Sérusier showed his young fellow painters, the future Nabis, what was to become their "Talisman": the "magical charm" for the group. The theorist of the Nabi group, Denis, explained that in front of this landscape, he and his friends felt "liberated from all the yokes that the idea of copying brought to [our] painters' instincts."

Paul Sérusier: Paul Ranson in Nabi Costume (1890)

Paul Ranson in Nabi Costume (1890)

Artist: Paul Sérusier

We know of very few portraits by Paul Sérusier, who specialized more in producing scenes of rural life in the Synthetist style of Paul Gauguin. The subject of the portrait, Paul Ranson, was a member of the Nabi group from the time it was set up by Sérusier in 1888, and is portrayed here in what seems to be a ceremonial costume. Recognizable by his goatee and lorgnon, he is depicted as deciphering the mysterious characters of a large manuscript. This is a clear example of the esotericism favored by certain Nabis, including Sérusier and Ranson. Moreover, the group used to meet in Ranson's studio in the Boulevarde du Montparnasse each Saturday. The studio was nicknamed "The Temple." There is no evidence that the Nabis actually wore this sort of garment; indeed, it is important to bear in mind that the Nabis' meetings at the "Temple" could also be lighthearted and farcical. However, the various symbols on Ranson's costume reveal Sérusier's interest in the occult. These include a five-pointed star decorating the crosier. This "pentogram," for example, could represent the mind or the head dominating the four limbs. Sérusier's painting, therefore, serves as a sort of document of the Nabis group in that it suggests the group's practices in a symbolic way.

Paul Ranson: Nabi Landscape (1890)

Nabi Landscape (1890)

Artist: Paul Ranson

This simple composition is based on flat shapes - including the flat, exotic patterns of Paul Gauguin - intense colors, and curving lines based on organic form. However, the subjects are Symbolist in character, and include the astral symbols of sun and moon hovering in the sky above the mountains (the celestial home of the gods), a bearded prophet figure or "Nabi" encased in a dark aura, (whom some have suggested represents the Hindu god Rama) wearing an ouroboros bracelet (the snake biting its tail), a peacock, and a phoenix-like bird - all symbols of the cyclical and eternal life - mounted by a female figure (possibly Sita, wife of Rama, coming back to earth). On the back of the painting are Arabic letters that spell out "Nabi." In this painting, Ranson reveals himself as the Nabi artist closest to the style of Art Nouveau, and the artist perhaps most seriously wedded to the kinds of obscure iconography taken from world religions, Celtic legends, and theosophy (a system of esoteric philosophy seeking direct knowledge of the mysteries of being and nature, particularly the nature of the divine).

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Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Les Nabis Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 05 Dec 2014. Updated and modified regularly
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