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2010 Art Writing Prize - Winning Entry

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Maurice Denis, Les Pèlerins d'Emmaus

by Elizabeth Gralton

The immediate impression that Maurice Denis' lithograph, Les Pèlerins d'Emmaus, imparts to a first-time viewer is one of gentle, solemn wonderment. The simple domestic scene depicted in the work is awash with an ethereal light that seems to have little to do with the pair of candles set upon the dining table. The central figure, seated at the table, is luminous and translucent — glowing with an almost other-worldly quality that contrasts starkly with the heavy brown and black clothing of the other figures in the scene.

Even without knowing the title of the work, or being familiar with the story that it depicts, the viewer clearly and intuitively understands that he or she is witnessing a spiritual event of great significance. In Les Pèlerins d'Emmaus, Denis brought together several elements that were typical of his own ideas about art and also exemplified certain artistic and philosophical currents that were running strongly through France of the fin-de-siecle.

The power of  Les Pèlerins d'Emmaus, its ability to evoke in the viewer an emotion or an impression that is not explicitly dictated by the actual subject matter itself, is a characteristic at the very essence of the broad artistic, literary and musical movement which was born in France at the end of the nineteenth century and which is known as Symbolism. Symbolism, despite its name, does not refer to the creation of meaning by the use of symbols or allegory, but to the translation of emotion through colour and form.

Maurice Denis was a member of the Nabis, a group of artists who came together in Paris in the late 1880s, and who participated vigorously in the contemporary debate surrounding culture and the arts. In an era that was increasingly secular, the Nabis (translated as "prophets") were interested in evoking a spirituality that was more and more elusive in their republican society.

The Nabis, who included in their circle Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard and Ker Xavier Roussel, sought to move away from naturalism, an artistic movement which was a product of the nineteenth-century preoccupation with scientific observation and the obsessively detailed recording of human life. The ideal of Symbolism was to create, not to copy. In his manifesto of Symbolism called 'Définition du néo-traditionnisme', Denis announced the "universal triumph of the imagination of aesthetes over efforts of stupid imitation, the triumph of the emotion of the Beautiful over the naturalist lie."

Gloria Gloom writes that "[f]or the Nabis, titles, like words, which Stéphane Mallarmé claimed could evoke but not name a subject, were insufficient, but not entirely insignificant, guides for understanding a work of art." In the case of  Les Pèlerins d'Emmaus, the title does not aid in the evocation of the emotion and spirituality of the work (the viewer can sense this without understanding the title) but it certainly provides us with a greater insight into the scene.

The title, translated into English as The Pilgrims of Emmaus, refers to the biblical story in which two disciples, travelling to the village of Emmaus after the crucifixion of Jesus in Jerusalem, encounter a stranger to whom they relay the story of the past days' events. On reaching Emmaus, the disciples invite the stranger to dine with them and the stranger, upon blessing and breaking the bread, reveals himself to be the risen Christ.

Denis' work clearly depicts the moment of Jesus breaking the bread and of the disciples realising that Christ has not only risen from death, but is there before them. The work manages to make this moment at once glorious (the divine light in the room and the landscape glowing in the late afternoon sun), solemn (the still, humble demeanour of the disciples and the servant women) and intensely intimate. But this is not first-century Israel.

This is a nineteenth-century bourgeois interior in Ile-de-France. The intimacy of the scene is achieved by Denis' placing of the miracle into a contemporary, familiar and simple setting. This relocation of the biblical story to a more banal backdrop is a strategy common in Denis' work and in Symbolism more broadly. George Mauner argues that:

"Simple rooms and fragments of rooms are the symbolist settings that have proven themselves most durable. Maeterlinck, speaking of the modern artist, wrote in 1894, "A good painter will no longer paint Marius the conqueror or the assassination of the Duc de Guise ... he will show a house lost in the country, an open door at the end of a corridor, a face or hands at rest, and these simple pictures will have the power of adding something to our awareness of life."

This idea of the playwright Maurice Maeterlinck, who was closely connected to Denis and the Nabis, eloquently encapsulates the essence of Les Pèlerins d'Emmaus. Denis, in eschewing the spectacular, transposes a wondrous miracle onto a quotidian setting and by doing so "reveals the divine character of daily life."

Maurice Denis, as with the other members of the Nabis, was influenced by a huge variety of individuals and different forms of art. He was in touch with some of the Symbolist poets such as Mallarmé and Verlaine, and designed decors and costumes for plays by Maeterlinck, Dujardin and de Gourmont. As a Catholic and a religious painter, Denis was also influenced by those who had been painting several centuries previously and whose work was steeped in the mysticism of Christianity. For example, he found that the work of Fra Angelico, an Italian Primitive whose paintings he saw in the Louvre, represented the sorts of ideas that the Nabis and Symbolists were trying to achieve.

Of Fra Angelico's The Coronation of the Virgin (1437-1446) Denis wrote, "What strikes me immediately is that all the figures are bathed in a dazzling radiance: the light is diffuse, the daylight is white. The painter has managed to capture their souls, and has created a sacred ideal that is separate from the painting itself." In so describing Fra Angelico's work, Denis simultaneously provides an accurate description of his own creation,  Les Pèlerins d'Emmaus. In an interesting counterpoint, Denis was critical of Paolo Caliari's 1559 depiction of the scene that he himself would come to paint and engrave. Denis described Caliari's version of  Les Pèlerins d'Emmaus Denis as "a canvas which is a magnificent scene, full of charming details, but which lacks mystery and intimacy."

Another influence on Denis, and also on much of the art and culture of fin-de-siècle France, was japonisme. Japanese artwork, particularly woodblock prints, had arrived in Paris in the 1860s and had continued to flood into the city throughout the latter part of the century to be exhibited and collected by Parisian art lovers. In contrast with the European mimetic tradition (which Denis refers to disdainfully as in his writings as trompe l'œil), the Japanese woodblock prints repudiated verisimilitude and instead used block colours, flat spaces, "disjointed figural elements" and absence of shadow to "make human figures seem more real, and nature more vibrant, than seemed possible in the deadening falsity of Western conventions."

Moreover, the very technique of printing was one that the Nabis, in the face of mass industrialisation, chose to embrace. Advances in photographic technology meant that where engraving had once fulfilled the role of reproducing works of art, it was now being used as a medium of expression in its own right. Print-making and decorative arts were part of a broader project, exemplified by the ideas of John Ruskin and William Morris in England, to demolish barriers between art and craft in an age where mass production was resulting in the degradation not only of art, but of quality of life. Both the medium used to create this particular version of Les Pèlerins d'Emmaus (there is also a painting by Denis of the same name) and the style of the lithograph with its block colours and flatness of form are manifestly a nod to the influences of japonisme on Denis' work.

Maurice Denis' Les Pèlerins d'Emmaus may not be the artist's best-known work but there is no doubt that this lithograph beautifully encapsulates many of the elements common not only to Symbolist painting, but to more general trends in the artistic and cultural world of fin-de-siècle France.

The scientific positivism that had marked nineteenth-century France, along with the increasingly secular republicanism meant that a certain sector of the art world was striving desperately to seek out a sense of spirituality through dabbling in the occult, looking further afield for the exotic, or reworking a centuries-old tradition of Christian art.

In his work, Denis needed to look no further than his Catholic faith for inspiration, but he made use of the familiar stories of Christian history in a thoroughly modern way to transpose a sense of the sublime onto his own world. There is no denying that  Les Pèlerins d'Emmaus successfully captures the spiritual and the emotional elements of a divine mystery, all the while repudiating the material reductionism of the naturalist project.

Bibliogrpahy

  1. Denis, M., Théories, 1890-1910: du Symbolisme et de Gauguin vers un nouvel ordre classique; Paris, L. Rouart et J. Watelin Éditeurs, 1920.
  2. Frèches-Thory, C. and Terrasse, A., The Nabis: Bonnard, Vuillard and their Circle, trans. Mary Pardoe; Paris, Flammarion, 1990.
  3. Gloom, G., 'Part I: 1890-99', in Gloria Gloom (ed.), Beyond the Easel: Decorative Painting by Bonnard, Vuillard, Denis, and Roussel, 1890-1930, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2001.
  4. Hokenson, J. W., Japan, France, and East-West Aesthetics: French Literature, 1867-2000; Madison and Teaneck, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2004.
  5. Martinez, F., Maurice Denis: les couleurs du ciel; Paris, Éditions franciscaines, 2007.
  6. Mauner, G., 'The Nature of Nabi Symbolism', Art Journal, vol.23, no.2, 1963, pp.96-103.
  7. Watkins, N., 'The Genesis of a Decorative Aesthetic', in Gloria Gloom (ed.), Beyond the Easel: Decorative Painting by Bonnard, Vuillard, Denis, and Roussel, 1890-1930, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2001.

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