Born with the idea of achieving a spiritualized art, the Nabis was a movement founded by Paul Serusier after he visits Pont-Aven, France, for the first time. Through the contact of the Post-Impressionist painter Émile Bernard, he was able to meet Paul Gauguin. Even though he was reluctant at first, Serusier was mentored by the renowned artist, learning about his Synthetic and Symbolist influences and how he was able to portray experiences using shapes and color. With Gauguin’s guidance, Serusier paints one of his most famous abstract work called Talisman.
When he returns to Paris, Serusier shares what he has learned during his travels to his artist friends, and they start a cult-like art movement, resembling a brotherhood. Even though they do not all follow the same painting techniques, the group aims to find the true foundation of art. They would focus on the mysterious and mystical subject, that included personal or spiritual matters, and believed this depicted a beauty greater than what nature could provide. This mystical atmosphere is in part due to the influence of the Symbolist ideas, as they would believe in Neoplatonism – mixing Christianism, Paganism and branching out to other spiritual philosophies. This unique combination of spiritual thoughts joined with a fundamental need to get in touch with a higher power is what helped create the Nabis movement.
The group would meet and produce at Paul-Elie Ranson’s studio. Each artist would approach different subjects in their work, while still collectively aiming to create subjective art that mirrored their soul. They even create a sort of mantra, where they speak of the expressive power of colors, sounds, and words, as well as forming a kind of technical formality. This formality was seen by each artist in a particular way, as each had a different interpretation and style on how to achieve a harmonious painting that translates the ideas of the movement. For example, Ranson’s work was very similar to the style of the Art Nouveau, as opposed to his college’s paintings. Out of the artists of the movement, Ranson and Serusier were the ones who revitalized sacred art with a more serious, philosophical, and mystical approach.
During the end of the XIX century, the Nabis group had their work published in La Revue Blanche, a journal of progressive nature. A characteristic of this group was that the artists were usually successful in different media and techniques other than painting, like producing illustrations for posters, books, and architecture, as well as painting murals and working with theater design. Many movements of this century had a passion for abstract, decorative art and the Nabis was no different.
One of the most influential Nabis artists was the Swiss anarchist, Felix Edouard Vallotton. He was also profoundly influenced by Gauguin’s work and produced a series of woodcut prints, marking this forgotten technique with modern day subjects, as well as using it to portray his political views. Just like the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, this was a reflection of the Japanese art. This graphic approach to art later inspires great artists like Aubrey Vincent Beardsley, Edvard Munch, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. As an admirer of the Symbolist thoughts, Vallotton does a series of portraits of writers from this movement.
Another name that cannot be left out is Maurice Denis, a French painter, and writer. He influences the next generation of modern artists, as Fauvism, Cubism, and abstract art in general, initially base their work on his theories. Denis states by the end of the century that art is primarily created by the artist’s will and desire.
In the decorative arts, Aristide Maillol is mentioned for he opens a tapestry, producing high-quality patterns that revive this lost art and was greatly encouraged by Gauguin to pursue this path. After 1895, he gradually starts working more with sculpture until he abandons his work with tapestry altogether. The painter Pierre Bonnard differs a bit from the rest of the Nabis group as the artist wasn’t interested in the obscure or mystical subjects portrayed by the other artists. He was considered a more intimate artist, for he described the daily life of the modern world and his memories. His primary concern was with color, as he believed it was a resource to experience the world, and would often retouch finished paintings when discovering a new mix of the color of his fancy.
The Nabis movement was a rich aesthetic experience in many areas, but prevailed especially in painting, marking a period of spirituality transmitted through color.