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Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Airbrushed from Art History? (7)

"Remember that a painting – before being a battle horse, a nude woman, or an anecdote of some sort – is essentially a flat surface covered with colours, put together in a certain order".

The history to this famous statement of Maurice Denis begins with a visit made by Émile Bernard to Paul Gauguin in 1888. Bernard, a fervent Catholic, had worked out a theory of painting involving the autonomous use of colour applied in flat areas and separated, as in stained-glass, by a black line. While at the artist’s colony of Pont-Aven, Bernard shared this approach with Gauguin; Gauguin later shared it with a student from Paris’ Académie Julian, Paul Sérusier. Sérusier then painted a local wood in this style on the back of a cigar box and took the painting back to the Académie where he showed it to his fellow students, Maurice Denis, Paul Ranson and Pierre Bonnard. Realising the significance of what they had seen, the students christened the painting The Talisman and, adding Edouard Vuillard, formed themselves into a group, the Nabis, to pursue this new style.

In 1890 Denis published an article ‘Définition du Néo-Traditionnisme’ that played a crucial role in defining the new style thereby assuring himself of a place as an influential twentieth century art critic. He became known as the theoretician of the Nabis, a designation that has obscured much of the work that he produced as a Nabi and subsequently when he played a significant role in the revival of sacred art in France.

During the 1890s Denis painted bold pictures in which the rhythm, flat-tone colours, and composition infused the work with decorative force. Later, influenced by the art of classical Italy, he created larger, more classical compositions including several large decorative series'. In the inter-war period, as an important decorative artist, Denis received commissions to decorate theatres, churches and public buildings. The coherence of Denis’ work, as was noted in Maurice Denis: Earthly Paradise, can be found “in the systematic and exclusive use of a picture's essential components (plane, colour, composition) alongside the demands of constantly changing subjects, be they linked to his Catholic faith, to a description of modern life or to the personal iconography he developed from the 1890s onwards.”

The Nabis’ desire to integrate art into life led them to emphasise decoration and to create wallpapers, fabrics, tapestries and furniture. A later Nabi recruit, Jan Verkade, summed up this aspect of their work in his statement that: "At the beginning of the nineties, a war cry rang from one studio to another: `Away with easel pictures! … let us have walls, that we may paint them over … There are no paintings, but only decorations.'" Throughout Denis’ varied life and practice he was faithful to this creed and, while Bonnard and Vuillard built their careers by creating paintings of interiors, he continued to seek out walls for decoration. Increasingly, he sought out the walls of Churches and his combination of sacred decoration was anathema to those who wished to tell the story of Modern Art in terms of successive avant-garde movements; leading to the significance of his later works and role being overlooked.

Denis had decided by the age of fifteen that he wanted to be a “Christian painter” confiding to his diary that “it is necessary that I become a Christian painter, that I celebrate all the miracles of Christianity.” He thought that painting was “a fundamentally religious and Christian art” which it was necessary to recover in his own “impious century.”

It is interesting to note these views and his remedy – “to restore the aesthetic of Fra Angelico, who alone is truly Catholic; who alone responds to the aspirations of devout, mystical souls that love God” – did not preclude his becoming a key figure in the avant garde of his day. That this was his intent is made clear by his statement, in 1919, that “we hardly see any contemporary work in visual arts that matches the vision of a Léon Bloy, a Paul Claudel, a Péguy or a Sertillanges.” He questioned then there was “any religious art that endorses the prestige of Catholicism with as much strength and freshness” as these writers but by 1933 was able to say that “Catholicism is in the vanguard of the modern movement” with “its place in the forefront of the arts and sciences alike” and with the characteristics of the new religious ar being “freedom and sincerity.” His definition of the symbolism he practised helps us to see how he could connect his faith inspirations with the radical artistic developments of which he was part: “Symbolism was ... neo-platonic. Writers and painters came to agree that natural objects are signs denoting ideas; that the visible is the manifestation of the invisible.”

Through these motivations, Denis was again in on the beginning of a new movement when in 1918, together with George Desvallières, he founded the Ateliers de l’Art Sacré or Studios of Sacred Art. A new atmosphere in French religious culture had begun to emerge from 1890 onwards and Denis became one of its key representatives.

Jean-Paul Bouillon describes Denis’ international influence in the catalogue for Maurice Denis: Earthly Paradise:

“His paintings of the symbolist period, acquired by collectors as early as the 1890s, left their mark on the young painters of Germany and in Russia in particular, after neighbouring Belgian had begun to exploit this new resource: some of Kandinsky’s work and the very first Malevich show the influence of Denis. But the “second Denis,” that of the new classicism, resolutely ignored until very recently by art histories, perhaps held the most sway. It produced considerable “reactions,” in Switzerland and Italy, for example, while in England, Roger Fry saw him as contributing to the “modernist” advances. Denis went on, in the post-1920s period, to become a tutelary figure in the religious arts and more generally in the “moderate” movements of Art Deco, in his attachment to certain forms of realism. To say nothing of the third period, after 1940, where his spiritual mark, at least, remained very strong, both among his former pupils of the Ateliers de l’Art Sacré, either through a direct filiation (in Quebec, for example) or even when an artist took the opposite direction to his own, as was the case of the pére Couturier; and more generally among all those artists – and they were many – concerned with spirituality, and not just with “pure painting.””

Through his publications and travels abroad Denis facilitated significant artistic networking. He became “a major reference among the second generation of Russian Symbolist painters, whose work was assembled in 1907 at the Blue Rose exhibition.” After his “conversion to classicism” he found other followers in Russia including Kusma Petrov-Vodkin. Through Verkade, both Denis and Sérusier formed links with the Beuron School of the Benedictine monk Desiderius Lenz, although Denis, unlike Sérusier, did not ultilise Lenz’s geometrically based painting principles.

In Belgium Denis was adopted by the coterie around the abbé Henry Moeller and exhibited with artists such as Georges Minne, Constant Montald, Albert Servaes, and Jacob Smits who shared similar aspirations. In Italy Arte Cristiana identified in Denis’ writings and works “the models to follow to achieve a renewal of religious art” while in Switzerland, through decoration of the Saint-Paul Church in Geneva, Denis developed a fruitful companionship with Alexandre Cingria and Georges de Traz who jointly founded the Groupe de Saint-Luc et Saint-Maurice to “develop religious art.”

Through contact with musicians such as Debussy and the circle around Jacques Maritain, Denis contributed to the exchange of ideas on aesthetics and religious art in France. His decorative church work included works in Geneva, Paris, Reims, Rouen among others. The chapel of Le Prieuré, a collective work by the Ateliers d'Art Sacré, is reckoned to be the “purest manifestation of his aesthetic ideal.”

Alix Aymé, Paul-Émile Borduas, Albert Dubos, Edouard Goerg, Paul Jamot, Paul de Laboulaye, Pauline Peugniez and Augustin Rouart went on to gain independent reputations following time spent in the Ateliers d'Art Sacré. Albert Coste became a popular teacher in the Art College at Aix-en-Provence and part of the artists circle around Albert Gleizes. Henri de Maistre became Director of the Studios until their closure soon after Denis’ death. All were involved in the decorative work undertaken by the Studios.

Pére Couturier also trained at the Ateliers d'Art Sacré and it was from this time that he developed his ambition to revive Christian art by appealing to the independent masters of his time. Churches, he argued, should commission the very best artists available, and not quibble over the artists' beliefs. Couturier put this belief into practice by attracting artists such as Fernand Léger, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipchitz and others for the decoration of a new church at Assy. He then worked with Matisse on a chapel for the Dominican nuns at Vence and, in the years which followed, he and Pére Régamey worked together explaining and encouraging the breakthrough that had been initiated in the decoration of Assy and Vence.

As a result of his significant role in the revival of Sacred Art in twentieth century France, Denis stands alongside such figures as Charles Péguy, Paul Claudel, Georges Bernanos, Olivier Messiaen and Jacques Maritain. His writings were significant and their influence was felt internationally. He was quoted approvingly by, among others, British Catholic artists such as Eric Gill and Gwen John.

For his input to the Nabi and Art Sacré movements, his art criticism and, most of all, the works of art that he created, Denis’ reputation as one of the most celebrated artists of his generation needs to be restored. He was dubbed ‘the Nabi of the beautiful icons’ for his combination of decorative beauty with spirituality. For Denis, the artist’s formal arrangement of his work was the source of its emotive and religious power and his skill as a decorative arranger enabled him to create beautiful icons throughout his career. Yet, his beautiful icons were not simply the works themselves but also the wider revival of Sacred Art to which he contributed so significantly.


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