They were eager to present themselves as the prophets of a new, modern kind of art. Their heroes were Cézanne and the masters of the Japanese woodblock print, but above all their guru, Gauguin. They called themselves Nabis, from the Hebrew word for ‘prophets’, because they saw beyond Impressionism and allowed imagination to play a new role in painting. By painting nature as they experienced it, in pure colours, artists like Bonnard, Vuillard, Sérusier and Denis paved the way for a new, abstract art.
Most of the members of the group that was to go down in art history as Les Nabis met in Paris at the Académie Julian and spent time together in Brittany, where they worked side by side with Gauguin. He encouraged the young painters to depict nature, but not to do so from nature. They sought inspiration out of doors, but returned to the studio to paint the images they had in their minds. Their colours were brighter than those of the Impressionists, their brushstrokes broader and their subjects less airy.
The final decade of the nineteenth century saw a revival of fashionable interest in mysticism and spirituality in Paris and elsewhere in France. Among the Nabis, this was reflected not only in the name of the group, but also in the importance they attached to a symbolist approach to painting and in their choice of subjects: religious and spiritual elements frequently played a major (if not central) role in their paintings. But they also liked to paint Breton women, in their white coiffes and black dresses. And the prophets did not confine themselves to painting. They also sought to express themselves in other media and even designed carpets, posters, and stage sets and costumes.
The main break with the past lies, perhaps, not so much in their media, subject choice or spirituality, as in the Nabis’ view of the nature of painting. It was Denis who expressed this best, in his now famous dictum that a painting is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order. This definition and the conviction it reflected were the first definitive steps on the path to abstraction that was to be trodden by so many painters in the years to come.
The Triton Collection is a private collection of top paintings from the period between 1860 and 1970. In many ways it forms a perfect complement to the permanent collection of the Gemeentemuseum. This exhibition coincides with the publication of the sixth Triton Cahier in the series currently being issued by Waanders Uitgevers (price: € 9.95).