Maurice Denis

Les Muses, Oil on Canvas, 1893,  171.5 x 137.5cm (67.5 x 54.1”)  Musee d’Orsay, Paris,France

It is easy to look at this picture and its date and immediately consign it to the heap of art nouveau that flourished at the end of the nineteenth century, but that would be a mistake. Denis is one of the people from which art nouveau took its cue, not the other way around.

I have mentioned before that there was a kind of disquiet in European visual art as its practitioners sensed they had, forgive the pun, somehow painted themselves into a corner. Despite the staggering creativity and achievement that had gone before, there remained a sense that modern artists relied too much on the techniques of  the old masters. They needed to learn to see the world in a new way, perhaps in a fresher, truer way. Denis was sufficiently talented and conceited to believe himself a leader of this brave new approach. Along with Bonnard and others he formed a group called the Nabis (from an old Hebrew word meaning “prophet”) to herald art as it would become. Considering his age at the time he must have been especially precious, but he is somewhat forgiven in that he was largely right. Art would experience a stunning change and he would certainly have his influence.

At the wise old age of twenty Denis wrote his manifesto: “Remember that a picture before being a battle horse, a nude, or some anecdote is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.” His friends must have been thrilled at the news. But his point remains true. Denis sought release in art which relied less on chunky impasto technique and more on symbolism served by simple, elegant, flat images.

Denis was so opinionated, and so anxious to write down his every thought it seems likely he might have been a bit tiresome to know. It was not enough to be a Christian, he had to remind himself and us at every opportunity how spectacularly devout he was. It was not enough to be in love with Marthe, his wife, it had to be the kind of love that would have beggared Shakespeare’s powers of description. Never mind. His friendships lasted well so his enthusiasms were apparently genuine enough that others forgave him for them.

This painting is interesting in that there are ten muses rather than nine. A few folks actually call it the Tenth Muse. She is the one at the very back that you can barely see, sitting in a chair. We see a group of three women in the foreground, our main focus. Traditionally, we accept nine muses because Homer and Hesiod tell us there were nine, but there are those who claim only three. I believe Denis is aware of this and has grouped them as the dominant figures: Melete, or practice, found in the movement of water; Mneme, or memory, who strikes the air to make whispering threads of past life play in our ears; and Aoide whose province is song and arises from the human voice. These three all wear Marthe’s face and are meant to reflect the three great passions (as he defined them) of Denis’s life: art, love, and religion. They are a trinity within the painting, and there are as well three groups of two, a second trinity, reminding us of his deep religious beliefs. Other groupings of three can be found which may or may not be intentional. Our tenth muse is indistinct but incredibly bright in the picture. If you draw a horizontal line bisecting her, and then a vertical line down the center of the picture you will have the traditional proportions of the cross with this muse at the center.

He was trying to say something important about his life, his beliefs, his love. He was struggling with symbols that might help him better communicate with the rest of humanity. He wanted to proselytize, he wanted to serve, he wanted to connect.

There was a time in the arts when it was not enough to be merely facile or talented or deft. You had to honestly try to imbue your work with meaning; you wanted it to be about something important. When Jonathan Swift wrote about eating babies in Ireland he wasn’t trying to convince anyone of his cleverness; he was trying to spur social change for the better. That’s what we are supposed to celebrate in this world. Real artists know this, are born knowing it and strive instinctively to achieve it. Sometimes their frustration at trying to reach their goals consumes them. This is when a Hemingway eats his gun; this is when a Spaulding Gray leaps from a bridge; this is when a Sylvia Plath sticks her head in the oven.

Sometimes, when an Amy Winehouse dies it isn’t because she was a scag, a user, or because she had it coming and God’ll get you. Sometimes it is because she honestly despairs at the emptiness of celebrity, the triumph of style over substance in the modern world. And so she retreats into excess because she just doesn’t have the maturity and strength to live naked in it.

I don’t know why she died. No one does.

But I do know that everything is good. Next year the kings of art will bring us a movie based on the board game Battleship. That should really be something.

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