New acquisition: The Communicants by Maurice Denis | MSK Gent
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New acquisition: The Communicants by Maurice Denis

Maurice Denis, ‘First Communicants’, 1898
Maurice Denis, ‘First Communicants’, 1898, MSK Ghent

Se rappeler qu’un tableau, avant d’être un cheval de bataille, une femme nue ou une quelconque anecdote, est essentiellement une surface plane recouverte de couleurs en un certain ordre assemblées.

Maurice Denis, 1890 [1]

The MSK recently purchased a painting by the French artist and theoretician Maurice Denis (1870-1943) entitled ‘The Communicants’ (Les Communiantes). Created in 1898, this painting typifies the artist’s early ‘Nabi’ period. It is a major addition to the museum’s other works by Denis, which comprise his illustrated book Le Voyage d’Urien (1893) and the print series Amour (1899), and to the general collection of Belgian Symbolist art in an international, yet essentially French, context.

As a young artist, Maurice Denis was a member of the Paris-based collective of ‘Nabis’, founded by Paul Sérusier (1864-1947) in 1888, whose other members included Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Paul Ranson (1861-1909), Félix Vallotton (1865-1925) and Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940). The name, taken from the Hebrew word nabi, signalled these young artists’ aspirations as prophets of new ideas that were intended to ring in a renaissance in painting.

The Nabis rejected Positivism and distanced themselves from Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism. Instead, they took inspiration from Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), who proclaimed that works of art must no longer imitate reality, but instead serve as its man-made equivalent. The collective’s ideal was an intellectualised concept of art in which every perceivable object should signify an idea, as a visible representation of that which is invisible. The references that appeared in their work were myriad and bursting with inspiration: tribal art, Japanese prints, folk art, Trecento painting, Gauguin, of course, but also Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898) and Odilon Redon (1840-1916). The Nabis embraced an emphatic simplicity, believing that the emotional power of art should not be obscured by detail. And this simplicity was not laid out on the canvas with reference to a central perspective, but rather allowed to develop of its own accord from a composition of flat, decorative areas of colour. In other words, optical harmony arose from the painting itself, with lines, colour and texture dictating their own principles. This approach ignored traditional hierarchies, instead proclaiming that each part of a painting was as important as any other.

The art of the Nabis is generally intimate in nature, with the young artists observing their immediate environs whether indoors or in the street. They took inspiration from works of contemporary Symbolist literature, spirituality and religion to create not only paintings but also posters, theatre sets, illustrations for books, murals, ceramics and stained-glass windows.

With mysticism playing such a central role in his work, the other Nabi artists referred to Denis as Nabi aux belles icônes: the Nabi of the beautiful icons. His deep appreciation for the 15th-century painter Fra Angelico was the impetus for a lifelong dedication to art inspired by Christianity. At the age of just 16, he noted in his diary that painting was essentially both religious and Christian, and this idea is reflected in his extensive oeuvre of paintings, murals, graphic art and illustrations in which biblical and liturgical representations are dominant. His intimate family portraits and household scenes also have religious connotations, even in the absence of any overt reference to Catholicism. Denis himself set out his artistic ideals and art-historical opinions in countless articles, a number appeared in volumes entitled Théories. 1890-1910. Du Symbolisme et de Gauguin vers un nouvel ordre classique (1912) and Nouvelles Théories. Sur l’art moderne, sur l’art sacré. 1914-1921 (1922).

In ‘The Communicants’, Maurice Denis depicts a celebration of First Communion in the parochial church of Saint-Germain, in the Parisian suburb of Saint-Germain-en-Laye where he lived and worked throughout his life. The scene is bathed in an atmosphere of contemplation and restraint. Under the watchful eye of a nun from the order of the Daughters of Charity, identifiable by her broad wimple, the girls appear as floating figures, sketchily drawn and resembling the figures d’âme as the artist himself described them: fragile, immobile female figures associated with the specific aesthetics of the plays of Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949). This was a frequently recurring element in Denis’ work between 1890 and 1900. The gentle, harmonious colours, combining shades of blue, green, yellow and pink, reinforce the solidarity among the communicants as they take this next step in their spiritual development. In 1904 the painting was purchased by the French collector Arthur Fontaine (1860-1931), who was also a friend to Denis, Edouard Vuillard and other Symbolist artists such as Eugène Carrière (1849-1906) and Odilon Redon. It remains in his family today.

The acquisition of ‘The Communicants’ represents a significant addition to the museum’s collection. For one thing, it is a meaningful supplement to the existing collection of works by Maurice Denis. For another, its religious, intimate nature allies it to other works by Denis’ Belgian contemporaries, including Charles Doudelet (1861-1938), George Minne (1866-1941) and Gustave Van de Woestyne (1881-1947). But it is also a historically valuable work in the larger context of cross-pollination between Belgium and France in the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th. This interaction is omnipresent in the MSK’s collections and exhibitions throughout its history, and Maurice Denis was a prominent participant in this dialogue as long as he lived. For him, Belgium was full of friends, a source of commissions and a place where his work was frequently exhibited and sold. It was also a favourite travel destination, as demonstrated by his visits to Brussels, Bruges, Antwerp and Ghent, and an arena for the exposition of his theories and beliefs, both in magazines and at conferences. As he himself put it: On y était reçu par de charmants amis de l’Art français qui s’appelaient Edm[ond] Picard, Octave Maus, Devillez, Carton de Wiart, Fierens-Gevaert. […] C’était une véritable renaissance du lyrisme, du sentiment religieux et de l’art idéaliste ! Nous étions fier d’y être mêlé.[2]

[1] One must remember that, before it becomes a war horse, a female nude or any other tableau, a painting is first and foremost a flat surface upon which colour is applied in a pattern of specific composition. (Maurice Denis, Définition du néo-traditionnisme, in Théories. 1890-1910. Du Symbolisme et de Gauguin vers un nouvel ordre classique, Paris, 1912 (ed. 1920), p. 1.)

[2] We were received by captivating admirers of French art, named Edm[ond] Picard, Octave Maus, Devillez, Carton de Wiart, Fierens-Gevaert. [...] It was a renaissance of lyricism, of religious sentiment and of idealist art! I was proud to be a party to it. (Maurice Denis, Appel pour les Musées et les Richesses d’Art de la France et de la Belgique envahies, in Cahiers de l’Amitié de France et de Flandre. Brochure 2, Brussels-Paris-Lille, 15 November 1918, p. 31.)