New York

Les Nabis

Albert Loeb and Krugier Gallery

Exhibitions like Les Nabis, comprising, as they do, central figures, vacillators and hangers-on, tend to be interesting in the degree that they include work by rarely-seen and marginal practitioners. The present installation at the Albert Loeb and Krugier Gallery is by moments an arresting charivari of stars—Gauguin, Émile Bernard, Maurice Denis and Paul Sérusier—but it is much more compelling historically when it points up the stylistic relationships between such second stringers as early Maillol and Paul Ranson. It is fascinating when unanticipated pictures by obscure members of the group, such as Jan Verkade and Georges Lacombe, are displayed. With a bit more scratching around, the exhibition might have dazzled us by extending the inventory of the so-called “unknowns.” Where was Meyer de Haan, or J. F. Willumsen, or Antoine de La Rouchefoucauld? One is appalled at the absence of Filiger. But it is pointless to carp about absent things or futile to denigrate the expensive catalog put out to fête the occasion—Taurus, Nr. 11—an over-produced picture book with foldouts in the expensive manner of Galerie Maeght’s Derrière Le Miroir. What has been assembled, despite the assininity of the accompanying catalog, is quite interesting.

The exhibition is dominated by two works, one the celebrated Émile Bernard, Bretonnes dans la prairie which, already in 1888, fully realized the Synthetic principles which Gauguin immediately adopted for his own. This stylistic appropriation contributed to Bernard’s despairing back-biting and was to ultimately poison his vast literary and epistolary production. The other work is, of course, Paysage du Bois d’Amour, “fait en Octobre 1888 sous la direction de Gauguin par P. Sérusier,” who also tells us in his curiously affecting script on the back of the small wooden panel, that it was painted in Pont-Aven, the cradle, so to speak, of Nabis culture. The painting presaged the progressive pictorial necessities of the next two decades in terms of its Synthetic decorativeness and expressionist colors. Its “talismanic” auguries were immediately seen for what they were by the young Maurice Denis, who, in perhaps the most famous passage relating to late 19th-century esthetics (I paraphrase considering it so familiar), recorded that after the summer holidays of 1888, Sérusier, returning to the Academie Julian from Pont-Aven, showed a cigar box cover to his fellow students—Maurice Denis, Toulouse-Lautrec, Ranson, Ibels. On it was depicted a “synthetically formulated” landscape. Gauguin had asked the painter, “How do you see that tree? Is it very green? Then select the most beautiful green from your palette. And that shadow—isn’t it rather blue? Don’t be afraid to paint it as blue as possible.” The resulting composition primarily stressed a “flat surface covered in colors arranged in a certain order.” That is, it was a picture (as Denis already had described it in 1890) which emphasized plastic or pictorial criteria rather than “a war-horse, a female nude or some sort of anecdote.”

If didactic allegory or the genre of history painting was in fact not entirely laid to rest by such views, they had, at this moment, suffered their most strenuous theoretical blows. It was of course, one thing to theorize and another to put theory into practice. Maurice Denis himself, for the remainder of his long life, would continue to paint understated Catholic allegories, ordinancing his space in a manner deeply marked by Puvis de Chavannes.

What has always struck me is the discrepancy between the legend and the lid. Instead of the intense blues and greens referred to in the celebrated quotation, we are instead presented with a quiet semi-abstract landscape of yellowish greens, pale blues and touches of subdued orange. In short, the expressionist hints of the “Talisman,” as Sérusier’s landscape has come to be known, spoke for at least a decade more of coloristic restraint and self-conscious tonal and pattern arrangements, particularly insofar as that section of the Nabis who were less “prophetic” and more “domestic”—the Intimists, headed by Vuillard and Bonnard—were concerned.

As I emphasized, congregations such as the present are usually more interesting in terms of the unfamiliar work exhibited, in this case, paintings by Georges Lacombe and Jan Verkade, as well as the group of four tapestry-like panels of esoteric ladies by Paul Sérusier called Métamorphoses. The affinities of the latter suite to the medievalizing taste of the contemporary Salons de la Rose+Croix (cf. Andhré de Gachons) are striking. Even more so when one considers that Sérusier himself was a practicing Rosicrucian. I hasten to add, however, that the arcane regulations devised by Sâr Péladan were temperamentally anathematic to the painter, who refused to collaborate with the Rosicrucian manifestations.

Verkade is interesting by virtue of the conversion of this Dutch Protestant to the German Benedictine brotherhood at Beuron, a Nazarine-oriented sect, dedicated to art, about which Charles Chassé has written in his Les Nabis et Leur Temps (and which the present occasion appears to celebrate, as the English edition of these essential essays on the Nabis has just been published). Verkade’s painting antedates his conversion. It is somewhat similar in feeling and appearance to landscapes painted by Émile Schuffencker (an absence also notable in the current exhibition).

Perhaps then the most intriguing work is the seascape by Georges Lacombe, taking note of its decorative affinities with Gauguin’s vision of the English Channel, the Woman in Waves of 1889. The relationship between Lacombe and Gauguin is even more striking after Lacombe gives up his career as a painter and becomes a sculptor. His carvings adopt a Polynesian manner highly similar to the great island style adopted by Gauguin for his own late sculptural oeuvre. And, in the degree that Lacombe’s career shifts from that of a painter to that of a sculptor, so too might his painting be compared with that of Maillol, who in this exhibition is represented by a tender painting, L’enfant couronné which brings together Sérusier, Denis and even a touch of Redon, in a delicate and flat manner similar to the tapestry production he was engaged in prior to his resolve to become a sculptor.

Robert Pincus-Witten