Even today Maurice Denis' (1870-1943) place in the history of art remains unspecified. Known as the "Nabi of the beautiful icons", he is celebrated alongside Vuillard and Bonnard as one of the most important Nabi painters, a founder of the movement and its brilliant theoretician.
Everyone remembers his famous dictum of 1890 when he was twenty years old and unknown. "Remember that a painting – before being a battle horse, a nude woman, or an anecdote of some sort – is essentially a flat surface covered with colours, put together in a certain order". This defining statement along with a handful of radical and spectacular works, like Sunlight on the terrace from the Musée d'Orsay, have become associated with him to the point where they have obscured the richness of his Nabi and Symbolist period (1889-1898) and his productive classical revival works of the 1900s. They also cast a shadow over his post-1914 work on the fringes of the Avant-Garde movements. Denis continued to paint until his death, and between the wars he was sought after for decorative projects for both civic and religious buildings.
Maurice DenisSunlight on the terrrace© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
He always claimed that his constant and sometimes anxious search to accommodate his decorative ambitions gave his work a coherence seen right through from his early symbolism to the later paintings, and even in his numerous writings. For Denis, this coherence was to be found in the systematic and exclusive use of a picture's essential components (plane, colour, composition) alongside the demands of constantly changing subjects, be they linked to his catholic faith, to a description of modern life or to the personal iconography he developed from the 1890s onwards.
This is really what the purpose of the exhibition: to restore Denis to his rightful place of eminence, and to make a serious reassessment of how his work is viewed, by following the strands linking his earliest work with later developments, the small Nabi paintings with the large decorative pieces.