‘Witch and Cat’ (1893).
Let’s dig the scene.
It’s the late 1800s—the fin de siecle. Art is all Symbolism and Decadence. You’re an artist. You hang with your buddies. They’re artists too. You all think art is something more than just sex and illustration or mere surface and image. You think art is a form of magic. Artists can change reality with colors. You create pictures that express something of your experience—something from your soul.
You and your buddies have your own little club. It’s a secret brotherhood. You call yourselves Les Nabis—a Hebrew word for “prophet” or “seer.” You think of yourselves as magicians. You dabble in magic and theosophy. You talk about ideas and seek a shared philosophy—some common purpose. You create your own Nabi language and practice arcane rituals. You carry a sceptre made from the snake of wisdom and a pentagram for the occult. You kick off your secret get togethers with a neat little mantra:
Sounds, colors, and words have a miraculously expressive power beyond all representation and even beyond the literal meaning of the words.
That’s your scene.
You are Paul Ranson (1864-1909)—a French artist who takes his lead from Paul Gauguin, mysticism, the occult and spirituality. Les Nabis—the artists you hang with include Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard, Maurice Denis and the group’s founder Paul Sérusier. You’re a bunch of hipsters—pretentious hipsters—but you don’t care. You have this shared belief that a picture only has meaning:
...when it possessed style.That is to say when the artist had succeeded in changing the shape of the objects he was looking at and imposing on them contours or a color that expressed his own personality.
This is what you think of as magic—personal magic.
In some respects Les Nabis anticipated the Fauves, a little Art Deco and more directly Abstract Expressionism—with its emphasis on the artist’s experience expressed through the abstract. Ranson held the society’s meetings at his studio—which he called The Temple. All this ritual and faux language and holding to strange occult and mystical beliefs was an attempt to big up the group’s reputation. They really didn’t need to as the art was good enough to stand and fall on its own merits. However, the cross pollination of ideas from the occult and the quasi-mystical did inspire Paul Ranson to create some very beautiful paintings of witches, mythic beasts, fauns, devils, and religious allegory—Eve, the temptation of Saint Anthony—which are still as magical today.
‘Witches in Saturnalia’ (1891).
‘Witch in her Circle’ (1892).
More of Ranson’s fabulous beasts to be found, after the jump….