MARIA ZAGALA talks about a set of delicate colour lithographs by Roussel

Sounds, colors, words have a miraculously expressive value, going beyond mere representation, even beyond the literal meaning of words.

While studying art at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in the late 1890s, Ker-Xavier Roussel joined a group of artists who identified as a ‘brotherhood’ and who called themselves ‘Les Nabis’, the Hebrew word for ‘prophets’. Led by Paul Sérusier, the group was comprised of disaffected art students, including Maurice Denis and Pierre Bonnard, who were alienated by the rigid, highly realist style of their teachers. Inspired by Paul Gauguin’s radical experimentations in painting while he lived at Pont-Aven, the younger artists were drawn to his abstract, flat use of intense colour and sought to achieve similar effects in their own work. Les Nabis were attracted by the anti-rationalist and non-materialistic agenda of symbolism. Seeking to capture an ‘inner view’ rather than an objective likeness in nature, in the late 1880s and 1890s Roussel and other Nabis artists created works that were evocative rather than descriptive, stressing the importance of the imagination. The Gallery has acquired, through the generosity of the Collectors Club, a set of delicate colour lithographs by Roussel, called Landscapes (Paysages), c.1899, which express this impulse in French art.

Comprised of six non-narrative prints, the album Landscapes depicts both figures in contemporary dress and mythological nymphs in nature. The influence of Japanese woodblocks on artists at this time is apparent in these works, particularly their asymmetrical compositions, and their use of subtle colours and complex patterns. Roussel’s admiration for Japanese woodblocks is evident in Woman in red in a landscape (Femme en rouge dans un paysage), in his use of silhouetted figures placed against flattened, layered space and the elegant, serpentine lines of his figures and forms. However, Roussel’s unexpected combinations of colour in the series are entirely his own. Indicative of his highly experimental approach to lithography is that Roussel’s images are often not successfully resolved – the images tend towards almost complete flatness, such as in Women in the country (Femmes dans la campagne).

Roussel was commissioned by Ambroise Vollard, a young art dealer and print publisher in Paris and also a passionate advocate of artist-made books, to make an album of twelve lithographs. By persuading artists who did not normally make prints (for example, Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard) to create limited-edition prints, Vollard aimed to reinvigorate interest in such publications. Produced in editions of 100, the lithographs were printed by Auguste Clot. Unfortunately, Vollard’s venture was not financially successful and he halved the number of prints in Roussel’s album to six. Although Vollard’s albums by Nabis artists struggled to find an audience at the time, they have become highly regarded by print connoisseurs for revealing the artists’ most experimental ideas.

Maria Zagala is Associate Curator, Prints, Drawings and Photographs at AGSA. This article first appeared in AGSA Magazine Issue 35.

1. This was the solemn incantation used at every Nabis meeting (Jeanne Stump, ‘Ritual and reality – the Nabis world’, in Ritual and reality: prints of the Nabis, exh. cat., Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas, Lawrence, 1979, p. 6).