25 Aug

Les Nabis from the Arabic/Hebrew word meaning ‘prophet’. Who were these prophets? What did they do? Well one of them did this:


Springtime, 1890s
Maurice Denis (1870–1943)

Maurice Denis is usually thought the leader of Les Nabis. This was a small group of mostly French art students in the 1880s who came under the influence of Paul Gaugin. If there was a prophet it was Gaugin and Denis played a rather more affable St Paul to his Jesus. Denis and his companions had inherited several decades worth of culture war in painting and sculpture. At the time these arts were evaluated by a state-based monopoly: the Royal Academy.

The Royal Academy in France incorporated painting, sculpture, architecture and music and was, by Denis’ time, the world’s central authority on good taste. Descending from similar academies in Italy the Académie des beaux-arts as it became known in 1816 made decisions about what constituted this thing ‘art’. It was rather like America’s Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences, an exclusive club of masters and journeymen whose elite decided whom, amongst the myriad contenders, deserved to be honoured, who was passable and what was unacceptable.

However, from the beginning of the 19th century, painters in Europe has been kicking against the standards of various academies (Britain too had its Royal Academy). First, the Romantics asserted the prime importance of emotion. Then in 1851 a young French painter named Gustave Courbet painted The Burial at Ornans which, however ‘orthodox’ it may seem today, was at the time of its execution an aggressive affront to good taste, to the very idea of the higher being that art was supposed to express.

The life-sized (ie enormous) depiction of a funeral in Courbet’s home town featured ordinary people recreating a recent ceremony of mourning. This was almost a documentary and it really pissed the stiffos and toffs in Paris right off. Many such declared that these squalid people had no business being represented in the fine rooms of the Parisian Salon. Others saw the point and defended the work. This was the beginning of a rip that would tear French Art in two in the decades that followed thru the Impressionists to the radical triumvirate who would founded Modern Art: Paul Cezanne, Vincent Gogh and Gaugin.

Denis and his prophets Paul Sérusier, Félix Vallotton, Georges Lacombe and (the in my opinion, over-rated) Pierre Bonnard were the first true modern artists. (This list is neither authoritative nor representative: just my take.) Here was the first group who took for granted from their undergraduate years, that the future of painting would be without the required photographic and geometrical techniques that had defined Western Art since the three centuries arc from Giottto to Caravaggio.

Denis was the theorist: he asked us to:

Remember that a painting – before it is a battle horse, a nude model, or some anecdote – is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order.

Herein lies the justification for the modernist departure from accurate representation for which the Western classical tradition is famous. From here we can derive the extreme rebellions of artists like Matisse, Picasso, Kandinsky and Gorky. Look up Denis’ work on the internet, zoom into his painting and you will encounter an image that looks like a large abstract in the lobby of a corporate skyscraper.

Denis understood that artists were now free as they’d never been before. Free to express themselves personally. But what has happened in the intervening years from Denis’ youthful rebellion of the 1890s to the end of the 21st century’s first decade? The NSW HSC curriculum tells students that:

Modernism highlights the paradigm shift within visual conventions, codes and signs. It breaks from the traditions of historic art and reviews visual arts practices (historical/critical/practical)

The technocratic poverty of this summary, obviously influenced by the writing styles of the (again) French post-structuralists, manages to purge modern art of all its drama and conflict. It sounds like an accounting procedure; it exemplifies the contemporary art scene’s tendency to, as they say, privilege theory over art.

The first item, ‘Subjective’, ironically lists theorists but no paintings. Notice how the summarizing parantheses at the end of the above quote puts history and criticism before practice. The course covers the period from Cezanne to Damien Hirst (rising sharply and gradually sinking to the depths). There are glaring ommissions, Terry Eagleton’s name is misspelt but thankfully Robert Hughes is represented.

Hughes concluded The Shock of the New by charting the history of Western art and modernism’s place in it. He sees modern art as the latest in a series of cycles and:

In each case, the first rush of creative ebullience was followed by a winding-down, academization and a sense of stagnancy which fostered doubts about the role, the necessity, and even the survival of art. So, too, with our own century.

When a society loses faith in its art there’s often a corresponding crisis generally. Such crisis is built into the culture. Consider, does Caravaggio’s radical reinvention of art not correspond with the Counter-Reformation revival of Catholic culture following the Protestant Revolution? Does not Rembrandt’s work provide a Protestant answer to Caravaggio? Are these artists not more inspiring, more moving than the Mannerists that preceded them? Can you not see, when you bounce from Giotto to Botticelli to Leonardo to Velázquez to Tiepolo to Ingres, Courbet, Manet, Cezanne, Miro and Rosequist, a culture that is in a state of constant reinvention?

Once again we see the same events only different. The art world is lampooned popularly as irrelevant. Meanwhile what had been only recently simply another criminal expression of a morally vacuous youth has evolved into something that brings in tourist dollars. High school students are required by their studies to go about the CBD asking lunch breakers whether street art is art or vandalism. I always answer that if it’s good it’s art: if bad, it’s a crime.

Street art evolved from the ghettoes of New York in the 70s, from there to Paris and the world. Depending on where you put it, it’s legitimate, not to mention commercially viable. Every day it draws people into the Melbourne CBD. Internationally, the most famous of these artists is Banksy whose work is illegal but incisive, witty and… expensive!

How much more vital is this stuff than the stuff in the respectable art press? How different in that it does not require explanation? How much more expressive of the freedom for artists declared by Denis? How detached from history it is and yet when I walk down an alleyway and look at the pigment-stained walls I’m reminded of something that pre-dates the catalog of what’s normally thought the Western tradition.

I have no more to say, I’ll simply leave you with two images separated by 300 centuries and ask you to see…


Lascaux Cave, c 30 000 BCE
Artist Unknown

Modern Melbourne

Melbourne Street, c 2010
Artist Unknown


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