In the first of these two articles about the Nabi painter Paul Sérusier (1864–1927), I looked at a selection of his works up to 1895, including his famous Talisman, viewed by many to be a pioneering abstract painting. This article completes my account by considering his mature style as the Nabi group was dissolving at the end of the nineteenth century.
Before the twentieth century, buckwheat was a major crop throughout Europe. Sérusier’s finely detailed painting of the Buckwheat Harvest from 1899 shows an elderly couple engaged in cutting their crop and setting it into stooks. Despite its name, buckwheat isn’t a relative of wheat, but closer to sorrel and rhubarb, as might be apparent from its red stalks. This could be almost anywhere in Europe, but I suspect is in Brittany, where the crop is still grown because of its tolerance of short summers.
His Wheatfield from about 1900 could almost be a pendant, although quite different in composition. The lower half shows rich detail in the tares at the edge of the field, with the wheat itself forming a golden band above. This is similar to some of the banded compositions of Félix Vallotton, and others, which were created during the same period.
Sérusier’s later landscapes contained more detail too, as shown in this View of a Village from 1906, with its extraordinary sky. Two men are walking to work, pushing their barrow and carrying a pick. Behind them is a woman, probably on her way to spend the day washing for others.
His landscape painting of Plane Tree Hill from 1907 is more modern in its appearance, with flattening of its perspective and simplification of detail, although its brushstrokes never become constructive. It’s still a world away from The Talisman of nearly twenty years earlier.
Sérusier continued to explore cultic ceremonies in the woods in his later figurative paintings, including Women with White Veils Bathing from 1908. This mixes classical figures, some very blonde, wearing white robes in an unearthly forest, and a distant clearing lit in brilliant gold.
In 1908, Sérusier’s longstanding friend and colleague Paul Ranson and his wife Marie-France set up the Académie Ranson in Paris. Sérusier gave up his time to teach there from 1908-12, and continued to help later too.
Throughout his career, Sérusier appears to have painted from what he saw in life, and this example of a Still Life with Bottle and Fruit from 1909 shows how in those works he remained realist, even down to modelling surface effects such as the reflections on the bottle.
Important exceptions to this are three paintings which he made in about 1910, of which Golden Cylinder is one; the Musée d’Orsay last year acquired a second, titled Tetrahedrons, and the third, Origins, remains in a private collection. This coarsely-textured work shows a golden cylinder glowing over a nighttime view of the sea and heaped cliffs to the right.
Sérusier’s later writing suggests that these three paintings were an attempt to use Symbolism to reformulate the close connections between humans and the cosmos around them. It can be no coincidence that he was actively involved in teaching at the time.
The artist’s wife, Marguérite Sérusier, was an accomplished decorative artist, and is shown in his Madame Sérusier with a Parasol from 1912. This is unusual for being an experiment in painting with distemper on paper, which may account for its dull colours.
In 1913, Sérusier painted a series of related works in his Synchronies in colours. Synchrony in Green (1913) is a still life with that colour as its theme, contrast being provided by three lemons.
The Corydon Shepherd, from the same year, is one of Sérusier’s few classical narrative paintings. Corydon, whose name probably derives from the Greek name for the lark (bird), was a stock name for shepherds in classical literature. The most prominent of several Corydons, to which Sérusier refers here, is a shepherd in Virgil’s Eclogues, who falls in love with a boy named Alexis – the two figures shown in the right of this painting.
As a result of his experience teaching in the Académie Ranson, Sérusier published a book ABC of Painting in 1921.
In his later years, Sérusier’s paintings returned to styles more akin to those of the late Middle Ages. Tapestry (Five Weavers) from 1924 shows five women working on various stages of a tapestry, from winding the wool to hand-weaving. As none of the figures is holding the all-important scissors, there is no evidence that the artist intended to allude to the Fates here.
Music, or Saint Cecilia on the Harpsichord, painted in 1926, is one of Sérusier’s last works, and shows the patron saint of music playing a harpsichord, an instrument which was probably invented in the late Middle Ages.
Paul Sérusier died in Morlaix, France, in 1927.
Did he make abstract paintings? I’m not convinced that The Talisman is either abstract or even Sérusier’s work, but a landscape painting made by the close collaboration of Gauguin and Sérusier, in which its forms are strongly motivated by objects in the physical world, including trees, other vegetation, and a house, together with reflections on the surface of a river. It is so unlike any of Sérusier’s other paintings that Gauguin’s role as his mentor must have been significant if not dominant.
Sérusier came much closer to truly abstract paintings in his series in 1910, Golden Cylinder, Origins and most of all Tetrahedrons. But these appear to have been Symbolist explorations of geometric form, and in any case by that time Picasso had already painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), and he and Georges Braque were in the throes of analytic cubism. Pure abstract paintings by František Kupka, Robert Delaunay and others were exhibited from 1912 onwards.
Of all the Nabis I have looked at so far, Paul Sérusier was by far the most experimental, but remained firmly rooted in reality.