Perhaps the most ideal complement to the forest and the former royal residence at Saint-Germain-en-Laye is the nearby Maurice Denis Museum with its fairyland depictions of kneeling knights and dainty damsels of yesteryear. The permanent exhibition it houses offers a multimedia experience of Brittany in Hellenistic or neo-medievalist mode. A Jack- of-all-arts (a kind of French William Morris), Maurice Denis’s ethereal, painterly renderings of bygone times also inspired his vastly luminescent stained glass windows, whose refractions of Parisian light in primary colours make seeing life through rose-tinted glasses seem limited by comparison. Denis also designed extremely convincing trompe l’oeil simulations of tapestry, his own Franco-Japanese fans for ladies of the early twentieth century and exquisite boat-patterned wallpaper that enables you to sail back into childhood bliss.
It is not hard to understand why he was nicknamed ‘the Nabi of the beautiful icons’ by his fellow Nabi painters, Félix Vallotton, Pierre Bonnard, Ker Xavier Roussel and Édouard Vuillard, all of whom were strongly influenced by Paul Gauguin’s vivid colouring techniques. Denis’s icons are indeed fundamentally religious. That is not to say, however, that all his motifs are drawn from the Bible or apocryphal writ. In fact, apart from a few depictions of Saint George fighting a snaky-looking dragon, Christ in his solitude, Lazarus with Denis’s wife posing as Saint Martha, most of his painting eschews traditional iconography. Even the religious motifs are quite casually rendered, often presenting saintly figures in mundane contemporary settings that recount paganised Christian narratives.
Denis’s vision carries a New Testament grace about it, taking the sting out of Old Testament stories. The Serpent, for instance, seems totally free of its venomous postlapsarian connotations of pain and loss. Denis paints as if the Fall from Grace had never occurred. In one of his versions of Saint George and the Dragon, a naked woman waits calmly in the wings
Saint George and the Dragon, 1917, oil on canvas, 56 x 91cm Beauvais, musée départemental de l’Oise as George combats a rather summarily executed Serpent. The Damsel is about as far from Distress as it is possible to be. Rather, she seems to be saying, ‘Hurry up, George, I haven’t got all day – I’m falling asleep in the lavender’.
The same can be said of the excitingly varied series of paintings that depict the myth of Acis and Galatea. The dangerously jealous Cyclops, Polyphemus, is always safely positioned on a distant mountaintop, sometimes so faintly contrasted with the rich red ochre of the sandstone that he seems to be little more than a harmless statuesque excrescence playing piped music to accompany the lovers in their idyll rather than posing a rivalrous, soon-to-be-murderous, threat.
In Denis’s painting, Grace is expressed, above all, through colour. Incoming waves flow in haloed semi-circles, the holy fire casts its lighted shadows over hale and healthy beach-brown flesh, rocks seem all aglow
with divine inner warmth. The landscapes gathered here make Brittany look like Arcadia, without a trace of Nicolas Poussin’s sombre warning, according to which Et in arcadia ego (‘I [Death] am even in Arcadia’).
Denis’s rainless, iridescent, Grecian Brittany is no ordinary trans-local utopia. Of all the idyllic myths, that which most readily comes to mind is probably Cokaigne, the Land of Plenty, in which everything is edible. Although there is no explicit reference to the myth as in Pieter Brueghel’s memorable rendering at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, Denis’s sea sizzles with buttery light; beached waves pour out their salmon-coloured sauce; clouds puff like candyfloss; flushed cheeks look as biteable as candied apples and sand is closer to manna or halva – as if you could mix it in your sandwich.
You might say that by far the strongest link between the members of the Nabi group is this radiating use of pastel beige, pink and orange-blossom paint. Bonnard also deploys it to wonderfully chromotherapeutic effect, and two of the group’s mentors, the sculptor-painters, Aristide Maillol and Georges Lacombe, made it the hallmark of their pictures.
After taking the viewer on a walk down Brittany’s pristine Arcadian beaches, the collection finds its way into the peninsula’s forests. These are equally dappled with sunspots and luminescent, nymph-like bodies. Légende de chevalerie façon tapisserie ou Trois princesses au bois d’amour (1898) focuses on one of the key locales of French painting, the Bois d’Amour. Situated in Pont Aven, this was where Paul Gauguin gave Paul Sérusier his famous painting lesson. Under Gauguin’s guidance, Sérusier produced Le Talisman, Aven le bois d’amour (1888), a tiny but particularly talismanic fetish for the Nabi group which hangs in the not- that-distant Musée d’Orsay. This wood also gave rise to Emile Bernard’s outstanding Madeleine au bois d’amour (also in Orsay). So, when you get off the local RER train that gets you from Paris to Saint-Germain-en- Laye, you leave a forest waiting for you by the castle only to fall into the arms of this painted wood of love.
The elegant museum catalogues also provide photographs of Denis and his populous family. (He had no fewer than seven daughters, which partly accounts for all the female figures in his paintings.) They allow you to situate some of the places rendered in paint. Silencio, the mysterious house that Denis acquired in Brittany, features prominently, as do Perros-Guirec and other magic places.
The creamy gold that peppers Denis’s pointillistic and post-pointillistic paintings is perfectly suited to the setting of the exhibition, which is in another of Denis’s abodes, in Saint-Germain. It is a remodelled royal hospital with beige stone walls which he called Le Prieuré. The low arching ceilings of the ground floor provide just the touch of crypt to make the visit all that more mysterious.