Although Bonnard, Vuillard, Denis, Roussel and Vallontton have gone down in the history of painting as artists belonging to a single group, their works, in spite of some common features, in fact display more differences than similarities. They were bound together in their youth by membership in a circle which bore a curious name — the Nabis. Art historians, who see the Nabis’ work as a special aspect of Post-Impressionism, have long resigned themselves to this purely conventional label. The word Nabis says next to nothing about the aims and methods of these artists, but probably on account of their very diversity it has proved impossible to replace the label by a more meaningful term, or at least one which fits better into the established scheme of things. The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg possesses a splendid collection of works by Bonnard and his friends, and a much smaller collection of no less artistic merit is housed in the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow. All these works are presented in this book.
An interest in Nabis painting arose very early in Russia. Here, as elsewhere in Europe, it emerged not among art lovers as a whole, but among a tiny group of art collectors who were ahead of the general public in their appreciation of new developments. Works by Bonnard, Denis and Vallotton found their way to Moscow, and later to St. Petersburg, soon after they had been painted, some of them even being specially commissioned. In those days the purchase by Russian collectors of new French painting was a defiance of what was accepted as “good taste”. In contrast to earlier times, these new connoisseurs of painting came not from the aristocracy but from the merchant class. Several well-educated representatives of the new type of up-and-coming entrepreneurs, used to relying on their own judgement, also became highly active and independently- minded figures in the art market. Two of them, Sergei Shchukin (1854-1937) and Ivan Morozov (1871-1921) formed collections which at the beginning of the twentieth century ranked among the best in the world.
The name of Shchukin is probably more widely known, and this is not surprising: his boldness, seen by many of his contemporaries as mere folly, soon attracted attention. He had brought the most notable works of Henri Matisse, André Derain and Pablo Picasso to Moscow before Paris had had time to recover from the shock that they caused. Even today specialists are astonished by Shchukin’s unerring taste and keen judgement. He proved able to appreciate Matisse and Picasso at a time when so-called connoisseurs still felt perplexed or even irritated by their paintings. The Nabis, however, attracted Shchukin to a lesser degree, perhaps because their work did not appear sufficiently revolutionary to him. He acquired one picture by Vuillard and several by Denis, among them the Portrait of Marthe Denis, the Artist’s Wife, Martha and Mary and The Visitation. Later another canvas was added to these, Figures in a Springtime Landscape (The Sacred Grove), one of the most ambitious and successful creations of European Symbolism, which was passed on to Sergei Shchukin by his elder brother Piotr. But Shchukin failed to notice Bonnard. Regarding Cézanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin as the key-figures in Post-Impressionism, Shchukin — and he was not alone in this — saw the works of Bonnard and his friends as a phenomenon of minor importance.
The second ensemble of decorative panels commissioned by Morozov is even more remarkable when seen today. Created by Bonnard, it comprises the triptych Mediterranean and the panels Early Spring in the Countryside and Autumn, Fruit-Picking. At Morozov’s suggestion Bonnard also painted the pair of works, Morning in Paris and Evening in Paris. Together with the triptych, these rank among Bonnard’s greatest artistic achievements.
There was one more Russian collector who showed interest in the Nabis, Victor Golubev, but he took up residence in Paris. The two canvases belonging to him at the 1912 St. Petersburg exhibition, Vuillard’s Autumn Landscape and Denis’s St. George, were actually sent from France. The exhibition betokened a genuine recognition of new French art: on display were the finest works by Manet, Renoir, Monet, Cézanne and Gauguin.
The generation of Bonnard and his companions came to the fore in artistic life at the close of the nineteenth century. Nurtured by the colourful era known as the belle époque, they themselves contributed much to it. The history of nineteenth- century French art may be divided up in different ways. If, however, one is guided by the most fundamental cultural distinctions, a pattern of three periods approximately equal in length can be drawn. The first, which began when the principles of Classicism still reigned supreme, saw the emergence of the Romantic movement. The second was dominated by Realism, which appeared sometimes on its own, sometimes in interaction with Romanticism and even with a form of Classicism lapsing into Academicism. The third period was marked by a greatly increased complexity in the problems tackled by the artists. Influences of earlier times could still be traced in the various artistic styles, but only to highlight the new and unusual artistic manifestations. The development of painting gathered an unprecedented momentum. Its idioms became enriched by numerous discoveries. Impressionism assumed the leading role in spite of the hostility shown towards it in official circles, by the general public, and by most painters.
The main “disturber of the peace” in the 1860s was Édouard Manet. His works caused a revolution in painting, blazing the way for a new style — Impressionism. The 1870s were decisive years in the Impressionists’ battle to assert their new, unbiased approach to reality and their right to use bright, pure colours, wholly appropriate to the wonderful freshness of their perception of the world. The 1880s were marked by more developments. Proceeding from the discoveries of Monet and his fellow Impressionists, Seurat and Signac on the one hand, and Gauguin on the other, all mapped out entirely new directions in painting. The views of these artists were completely different. The “scholarly” approach of the first two Neo-Impressionists ran counter to the views of Gauguin and the Pont-Avon group of which he was the leader. These artists owed a great deal to medieval art. Meanwhile Vincent van Gogh, who had by that time moved from Holland to France, led the way in another direction: his main concern was to express his inner feelings. All these artists had moved a good distance away from Impressionism, yet each owed a great deal to the revolution that Manet had fomented. When Seurat and Gauguin exhibited their pictures at the last exhibition of the Impressionists held in 1886, their divergence was already clearly marked. Naturally, among the “apostates” one ought to name the two contemporaries of the Impressionists — Redon, and, above all, Cézanne, who from the start recognized not only the enormous merits of Impressionist painting, but also saw traits in it which threatened to lead to shallowness and to the rejection of the eternal truths of art.
Soon a new term — Post-Impressionism — made its appearance. It was not a very eloquent label, but it came to be widely used. The vagueness of the label was not accidental. Some of the French artists who were initially inspired by the Impressionistic view of the world later left Impressionism behind, each pursuing his own path. This gave rise to an unprecedented stylistic diversity which reached its peak between the late 1880s and the beginning of the twentieth century. No one name could possibly be adequate in this situation. Of course, the Nabis artists had never followed one particular style. Each member of the group pursued his own course, regardless of the stylistic, ideological and religious ideas of the others. In this respect the group was unique. This is not to say that the Nabis did not have a common artistic platform, as without one the group could hardly have formed and existed as long as it did…
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