MONTREAL — The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts offers a plush, spiritual retrospective of French painter Maurice Denis with an exhibition titled "Earthly Paradise."The exhibit, which features some 100 paintings and another 60 photographs, comes courtesy of Musée d'Orsay in Paris. It is the first retrospective of Denis' works ever shown in North America, according to the museum.Denis, who lived from 1870 to 1943, was a painter, illustrator, photographer, art critic, theorist and dedicated family man. As a youngster, Denis was attracted to fine art and studied as early as age 13. He often visited museums, including the Louvre.Denis was co-founder of the Nabis, an art movement from the late 1800s that included the likes of painters — and friends — Edouard Vuillard, Ker-Xavier Roussel, Paul Sérusier, Pierre Bonnard and Paul Ranson. The young artists named their group Nabis, which translates from Hebrew and Arabic to the word "prophets."Their style was "simplified art based on the expressive and decorative transposition of nature," says the exhibit text. "They set out to translate into clear signs as indescribable ideal, the hidden language of God, love and of feeling."Denis, who was also known as "the Nabis of the beautiful icons," became the group's spokesperson and theorist.
The works often employed simple shapes with a distinct separation of color and little depth of field background. Examples that convey these artistic traits include "The Roofers" and "Homer Wandering through the Countryside," both from 1889 and both displayed."It is well to remember that a picture, before being a battle horse, a nude woman, or some anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order," Denis once said.But his assembly of colors just happened to produce some stunningly visual masterpieces. Many times the subject was religion, like "Procession under the Trees," where a line of women walk through a forest. One woman breaks from the bunch to meet a winged figure. Another was "Catholic Mystery," with bold colors and a bright green crucifix.Other themes explored decorative arts. Denis created designs for wallpaper, stained glass, tapestries, book illustrations and posters. All are on display, as are four exquisitely ornate flattened lampshades.But the most personal of Denis' subjects was his wife, Marthe. Together, the pair had seven children. And from the paintings and sentiments displayed, this guy was madly in love. The exhibit theme, "Marthe's Love in the Time of Symbolism," shows Marthe as Denis' muse. She appeared in a number of paintings: as a wise virgin in a garden, a princess in a tower, a Madonna with child.
"Exceedingly beautiful, in the veil of a virgin and someone quite different, unreal, more beautiful than dreams," is how Denis once described his wife.Post-Nabis works saw Denis painting beach scenes of Brittany, one of his favorite family vacation spots. A number of these colorful portraits are displayed.But what I liked most about the exhibit was the collection of some 60 personal effects, including birth announcements, family snapshots and even a home movie dated from 1930. Here we find Denis at the regatta, the beach and just spending quality family time — the subject of many of his paintings."Maurice Denis: Earthly Paradise" continues until May 20. Also running is "Once Upon a Time Walt Disney" until June 24 (admission is separate).The Montreal Museum of Fines Arts is at 1379 Ste Catherine St. W. (Metro Guy-Concordia).Hours are Tuesday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Wednesday to Friday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; and weekends from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission costs $15 for adults, $7.50 for students and seniors, free for children 12 and under.
Reduced adult admission costs $7.50 Wednesday evenings from 5 p.m. to closing. Call (514) 265-1600 or visit www.mmfa.qc.ca.