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Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Maurice Denis

Bacchus and Ariadne, 1907, Maurice Denis
Very few artists today would even contemplate painting a modern-day version of Maurice Denis' 1907 Bacchus and Ariadne (above). First of all, figures from Greek mythology are not high on very many artists' "bucket list." Second however, there's the all-too-obvious matter of intergenerational nudity with at least some degree of latent eroticism, at least to our eyes today. Maurice Denis was a late Victorian era artist, or at least his art and social sensibilities were born in that era. When we bring to mind the Victorian era we tend to think of a rather prudish, conservative, religious, outwardly moral social milieu in which women dressed up to the neck and down to the ankles and men wore three-piece wool suits for strolling along the beach. We picture scenes such as Denis' The Sewing Lesson (below) from 1903. What we seldom visualize is women (and occasionally men), with children (of various ages and genders) frolicking naked, in and near the water as if they'd just taken leave of the beach in the Garden of Eden.
The Sewing Lesson, 1903, Maurice Denis
The key element in all of this (if I may quote myself) is the phrase above, "...latent eroticism, at least to our eyes today." I'm not talking pornography here. That's a separate issue, now as it was then. No, I'm talking about a far different attitude toward children during the Victorian era. First, it should be noted that the Victorians saw them as perfectly innocent and asexual beings. In that sense they were unafraid to portray children in the nude because they projected this concept onto kids and did not see kids as being sexually corruptible as we do today. Moreover, the moral panic over sexual predators is largely a modern phenomena. The Victorians saw the nude child not an erotic, but as angelic, devoid of all pretense and trappings of the secular world. Secondly, these scenes do not reflect an accurate view of reality. The Victorians were obsessed with the classical world. Thus these nude beach scenes were much the same as idylls--scenes of families in a peaceful natural setting, in which the figures are often nude or semi-nude (below). The child was seen as "spiritually pure" much less complicated, and far more innocent than today.

First steps--Family by the Sea, 1911, Maurice Denis
Child in an Apron or Little
Girl in a Red Dress, 1889
Maurice Denis, one of his
earliest paintings.
Maurice Denis came well-versed in children and family life. He fathered nine of them by two wives both of which often posed for him, as did his children, especially his oldest daughter, Noelle. Born in 1870, Maurice Denis came from a modest family in Granville, Manche, (northern) France, along the Normandy coast. He enrolled in the Académie Julian at the age of eighteen along with his high school companions Edouard Vuillard and Ker-Xavier Roussel. There they met Pierre Bonnard, and Paul Sérusier, together they and others formed the Nabis group. Denis became the appointed theorist of the group following the publication in 1890 of the first theoretical work on the Nabis aesthetic, Definition of Neo-Traditionism. At the age of twenty, Denis entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where he studied under Gustave Moreau. A few months later, the young painter made a notable debut at the Salon, with the pastel The Choir Boy, an indication of his spiritual inclinations. Denis was also a mystic, finding success with his religious paintings of the Symbolist poets. He found a fascination with the Italian primitive artists, during a trip to Italy in 1895.

Denis was an avid painter of self-portraits.
The 20th-century saw a period of flourishing productivity for Denis’ talent. His Homage to Cézanne (below) dates from 1900. The painting depicts a number of key figures from the once secret brotherhood of Les Nabis (Hebrew for "the Prophets"). The painting is a retrospective in that by 1900 the group was breaking up as its members matured. In this painting, Denis gathered a group of friends, artists, and critics to celebrate Paul Cézanne, who is represented by his still life Fruit Bowl, Glass and Apples painted around 1880. The scene is the gallery of the art dealer, Ambroise Vollard. The Cézanne painting had belonged to Paul Gauguin, who is thus evoked, despite having left France permanently in 1895 for the South Seas.

Homage to Cezanne. 1900, Maurice Denis--
a group assembled at Ambroise Vollard's art gallery.
Although originally influenced by the Impressionists and Cézanne, Denis’ style later became archaic, inspired by the frescoes of Fra Angelico and the paintings of Puvis de Chavannes, along with the sensuous qualities of Art Nouveau. As did many of the Nabis, Denis devoted himself mainly to decorative paintings for churches, private homes, and prestigious buildings such as the Theatre of the Champs-Elysées and the Petit Palais in Paris. In an effort to regenerate religious art in France, Denis spearheaded the opening of a section on religious art at the Fall Salon of 1919, with the painters Rouault and Desvallières of the Ateliers d’Art. Up until the end of his life, the painter tried to communicate his ideas on pictorial symbolism through his classes at the Académie Ranson from 1908 until 1919, and his books and lectures both in France and abroad.
Maternity, Anne-Marie and Martha Has the Oval Ring,
1902, Maurice Denis. (I love the baby's expression.)
Denis was among the first artists to insist on the flatness of the picture plane—one of the great starting points for modernism in the visual arts. As early as 1890, in his famous definition of painting, he stated: "Remember that a picture, before being a battle horse, a nude, an anecdote, or whatnot, is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order." Denis is also said to have been one of the earlier artists to have used photography in creating his works, especially in depicting his brood of children, as seen in his Maternity, Anne-Marie and Martha Has the Oval Ring (above), from 1902. A photo of two of Denis' daughters (below) suggests something of what he had to work with, though I could find no painting corresponding to this particular photo. Maurice Denis met a tragic end. In 1943, during the German occupation of Paris, he was hit by a truck one night while crossing the Boulevard St. Michel.
Noëlle pushing Anne-Marie in
a cart with big wheels, 1904.
(This photo has been enhanced for clarity.)


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