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In an entry in his journal, written in 1929 (vol iii, p.118), Maurice Denis complains that though his Theories are much in demand his own painting is disregarded. He goes on to explain that: 'finally we, those of our generation [nous autres], see nothing other than the transformation that occurred [le tournant] in our youth, and nothing new since then other than excess, exaggerations of ideas that seemed to us to be right and true. And then there are men, the value of originally minded artists, who, out of our ideas or from extreme versions of our ideas, have drawn means of expression that have been useful to their own sort of talent, to their sensibility. These are, I'm certain, original artists. But they are part of the same great current of ideas that we saw being born at the end of the last century, when we read the verses of Ghil (1) in Scapin, bought at the door of our college; when we saw the first exhibitions of Bernard, Van Gogh - when we discovered Cézanne.'

(1) René Ghil (1862-1925). Poet who developed an ambitious theory of the sound of words independent of their prose meaning while still aiming at a large scale history of the Universe understood as the effort of matter to attain self consciousness. Scapin was published in 1885-6 then becoming Le Décadence.

Denis' Theories do indeed have an interest independent of his own painting. He was present at an important moment, a crucial turning point in the history of the European sensibility and, unlike many of the other writers trying to understand what was happening, he wrote about it in general terms, capable of covering a wide variety of possibilities. The width of the possibilities that could be embraced in Denis' Theories may be indicated by his alliance with Georges Desvallières, his collaborator in the post-war Ateliers d'Art Sacré. Where Denis' own painting is nearly always gentle, decorative and sunny, Desvallières' is dark, violent, often wilfully ugly. But both can fit comfortably into the broad definition Denis gives of the term 'symbolism'; and it is 'symbolism' thus understood that Denis sees as crucial to the change in sensibility that took place in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century.

By 'symbolism' Denis means that instead of copying the external appearances of the world as he sees them, the artist finds - in those appearances but also in the 'abstract' qualities of painting, line, form and colour - 'symbols' that evoke his own states of mind, those qualities of his own soul that he wants to share with the viewer. As we can easily see, and as Denis himself says: 'all truly superior works of art, whether ancient or modern, are [in this very broad understanding of the term - PB] symbolist.' The transformation that occurred in the late nineteenth century was not a discovery of something entirely new, something that had never before been experienced in the world, such as is implied in the absurd label 'modernist' or in the theories of the Italian or Russian 'Futurists'. Denis' most influential essay, written at the age of nineteen under the direct impact of his first encounter with the work of Gauguin, Van Gogh and Cézanne, was called A Definition of Neo-Traditionalism.