Pictures of life, visions of Heaven

Maurice Denis was terrified by abstraction, but his alternative was not as reactionary as it is often painted. By Iain Gale
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The Independent Culture
It is Sunday afternoon in the garden of the convent of St Germain- en-Laye. A small procession meanders between daisies and peonies - little girls robed in white and garlanded with flowers, bearing bouquets of early roses. Apprehensively they draw near to the object of their pilgrimage, and one of them turns to see the young man with a beard who bends to kiss the first to reach him. For on this quiet suburban Sunday in May 1900, Jesus Christ has appeared to the Parisian bourgeoisie.

The agent of this miraculous manifestation is the painter Maurice Denis, who in Suffer the Little Children To Come Unto Me depicts himself kneeling beside his wife as their children meet their Saviour, gazing with all the self-confident piety of a donor in a 15th-century altarpiece. In this extraordinary painting, included in a new exhibition in Liverpool, Denis defines the motivation behind a 50-year career. Inspired by a trinity of Faith, Love and Family, he transforms the prosaic into the sacred, creating a very real heaven on earth.

Maurice Denis was a visionary. Uniquely he embraced Symbolism, yet eschewed its concomitant decadence, preaching fundamental Catholicism in images whose pure colour and form, he believed, had the power to communicate the purity of his faith. Long neglected, Denis deserves to regain his position within the pantheon of early modernism, and this exhibition, transferred to the Walker Art Gallery from Cologne and Lyons, attempts to set the record straight. Denis has traditionally been seen as a talented theorist but a reactionary artist, significant merely for his early work as a member of the Nabis. On the evidence here, this view must be revised.

Taking their name from the Hebrew word for prophet, the Nabis, an idiosyncratic group of temperamentally contrasting artists, including Denis, Bonnard and Vuillard, were established in Paris by Paul Serusier in 1888. United only by the mysticism of Denis and Serusier, they were never "avant garde" in the "modern" sense of the word. Like the Pre-Raphaelites 30 years before, and the Nazarenes before them, they wanted to return art to a primitive purity. Similarly, they soon developed in quite disparate directions.

Denis's specific aim was to create a new form of sacred art that would encourage a national religious revival. He made an inauspicious start with a work of stultifying hieraticism: Catholic Mystery, painted in April 1889. Seven months later, though, he was finishing Calvary, an almost abstract image of Christ with the Holy Women. The catalyst for his transformation was partly the work of Gauguin, which Denis had seen in the "Impressioniste et Synthetiste" exhibition earlier that year. More so, though, it was his exposure to a work by Serusier, The Talisman, painted in Brittany under the eye of Gauguin in October 1888. Overwhelmed by this exercise in pure colour, Denis wrote: "All works of art are a transposition... the passionate equivalent of an experienced sensation."

The effect on his painting is seen in the smallest work here, the Green Christ of 1890. This was Denis's closest flirtation with abstraction, and, shocked by its barbarity, for the first time he obeyed his own call to order, drawing back from the brink to embrace a quaint Neo-Impressionism. The loose spirituality of pure abstraction, so deftly explained by Kandinsky, terrified Denis, who evolved instead a style of classical figuration, using the limited palette and planar composition first evinced in Sleeping Beauty in 1892, a portrait of Marthe Meurier, the girl who, the following year, would become his wife and, unwittingly, his abiding muse.

From their first meeting in 1891 to her death in 1919, Denis never tired of painting Marthe. In none of her depictions, though, is she quite what she seems. In The Cook (1893), one of the icons of early modern art - yet not seen in public since 1901 - Marthe, a servant in the house of God, turns a blushing face, defined with simple, sculptural lines, towards the viewer, drawing us into a pictorial space whose ultimate focus is Christ.

In other works, she has a dual significance - becoming at once the beloved wife and the biblical saint, as Denis does for St Germain what Stanley Spencer would later do for Cookham. In the numinous Sacred Wood of 1897, Denis depicts her in triplicate, each image both a mood portrait and an allegorical expression of divinity. Through Marthe, Denis communicates his vision of divine grace. But it is via another form of portraiture that he comes closest to achieving the perfectembodiment of the sacred.

Central to this exhibition are two groups of small paintings depicting a mother and child. While these often follow the compositional format of the Virgin and Child, they are not specifically religious icons, but earthbound images of an earthly maternity. What better example than the real happiness of his own family to convey Denis's ideal of the eternal happiness of God's elect? The artist's celebration of his love for his faith has become a glorification of love itself - an encomium to the love between Maurice and Marthe, and to its concrete expression, their children.

Yet within these sensitive images lies one of the reasons for the neglect of Denis's oeuvre. It is one of the tragedies of the 20th century that both the classical style and, to a lesser extent, the iconography of motherhood, have been appropriated by totalitarian culture. Denis has suffered as much from reaction against this perversion as from the Marxist doctrine that aligns the realism of observed life with "truth" and mystical symbolism with the right wing. Although his "art sacr" was as conservative as his faith, Denis never embraced radical right-wing politics. During the Nazi occupation, he refused to collaborate with the Vichy regime and even assisted the resistance movement.

Perhaps the clearest indication that Denis's art can no longer be dismissed as reactionary lies in comparison with that of Matisse. Quite apart from theoretical similarities within their writings, telling affinities exist in their work. Compare, for instance, Denis's Sacred Wood of 1897 with Matisse's arcadian pastorals of 1905-6. Similarly, Denis's Violin Lesson of 1909 owes an obvious debt to the Fauve.

This is but one of many art historical issues raised by a show which would be the highlight of any London season. In 130 paintings, most from private collections (and two from the Hermitage, never before been seen in the West) and a representative group of lithographs and drawings, we grasp the essence of Denis's art. The keeper of the Walker, Julian Treuherz, is to be congratulated on attracting to Liverpool an exhibition that offers a seductive alternative history of the progress of Western art to a world blinkered by formalist precepts and the jaundiced legacy of a tired modernism.

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