Art historians like to make groups. They like to put artists into categories, into different boxes, and stick labels on them. This is all understandable – a lack of descriptive tags and names would make it much harder to describe an artist’s style. But it is not always immediately obvious which of these group names were slapped on by art historians and journalists, and which were declared by the artists themselves.
‘Impressionist’ was originally used as a derogatory term by scathing critics, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were self-named, the Neo-Impressionists were also christened by a journalist, but a friendly supporter this time, and as for so-called ‘Post-Impressionism’… well, that wasn’t coined until after many of the artists it applied to were dead, and is considered by many as meaningless and inaccurate. The Nabis, however, were one of the tightest-knit and most clearly-defined artistic groups. They banded together in 1892 at the Académie Julian, flocking around Paul Sérusier upon his return from Brittany bearing wisdom imparted from Gauguin and The Talisman, which he painted under Gauguin’s guidance. The members were soon giving each other nicknames, meeting in Paul Ranson’s studio (known as ‘The Temple’), and sending each other letters in a secret language.
Though devoted to their group throughout the 1890s, by the turn of the new century these artists had gone their separate ways. This might not surprise you, taking a quick look at their works; although there are certainly stylistic similarities, you might not immediately group these artists together. The things that united them (devotion to Synthetism, interest in the theatre and in decorative art, desire to move away from both Impressionism and academic training) also left room for a wide variation in media, religiousness, and style.
The influence of Japanese prints upon their work, seen in the prominence of large areas of flat colour, pattern, and a strong focus on the decorative is another clear feature of the Nabis’ art. And yet the next Nabi work you chance upon may show none of these characteristics. Does it seem, for you, that these ‘Nabis’ were really united through a particular style, or were they perhaps simply a group of artist friends drawn together more by their sense of fraternity and love of secretive group behavior? Decide for yourselves by picking up a copy of Nathalia Brodskaia’s Félix Vallotton, or Albert Kostenevitch’s The Nabis. For a closer look at Vallotton’s work, head along to Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum from 14 February until 1 June 2014 to visit their exhibition dedicated to the artist.