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Intimate Images Of Light And Shadow

EDOUARD VUILARD'S art is the kind that rarely takes the spectator by storm, but makes itself felt by light touch, by after-image. You find yourself noticing a shadow in the corner of a room, or a particular quality of outdoor light trapped indoors, or a sudden vivid color standing out in an environment of predominant blacks and grays, and you inevitably think of Vuillard. With the quiet intensity and intricacy of his painting, it is Vuillard who makes noticeable for you what otherwise would have been overlooked, marking it as somehow indelibly his. "Intimate" is a word often used, particularly with reference to his paintings and drawings of the various Parisian homes where he lived with his mother and other family members. His mother was of prime importance to him, and he painted her over and over again. He called her his "muse." She was evidently as much a part of his feeling for home as the wallpapers and armchairs, curtains and carpets - so that sometimes she seems just one more amiably comfortable part of the overall pattern and atmosphere of t hese dim, crowded, lived-in rooms. You feel that they are her rooms, the visible containers of her bourgeois taste, her daily life. Like the Dutch genre painters of the 17th century, this 19th-20th century French artist found deep truths in things most domestic and familiar. But it was precisely in this context that he also discovered the surprising. "Why is it always in the familiar places," he asked himself in his journal, "that the mind and the sensibility find what is most genuinely new? The new is always necessary to life, to consciousness." Belinda Thomson, in her introduction to the catalog of a current exhibition of Vuillard's work in Sheffield, England, writes: "Here [at home] were the people and objects Vuillard saw every day, underlining an argument he pursued in his journal in 1893: that the effort of will needed to contrive a new vision from a banal incident was only possible because the senses were free from the distractions of superficial novelty." The "incidents" he painted in his domestic interiors are hardly incidents at all. Thomson herself is not the first writer to suggest that Vuillard is really painting presence rather than activity. It might be argued that he was above all a still-life painter, even when he included people. His mother sewing, or arranging her hair in a mirror, or just coming through a door, are scarcely events. She was content to pose for her artist son so long as she could get on with her work. Claude Roger-Marx, in his b ook about the artist, described him as someone who remained "faithful to his habits." And he himself said that "the painter's instrument is his armchair." Roger-Marx further quotes the writer Charles Peguy on the sacredness of home and daily routine. The words seem to fit with some aptness Vuillard's interiors: "The home and the studio were one, and the honor of the home and the honor of the studio the same honor. What resulted? Everything was a rhythm, a rite, and a ceremony from the moment of rising. Everything was a sacred event. In all was a tradition and a lesson, everything was inherited, everything was a pious habit, everything was a prayer going up all day ... sleeping and waking, work and the brief repose, the bed and the table, the soup and the meat, the house, and the garden, the yard and the doorstep, the plates on the table." HOWEVER, Peguy's words might lead to an over-simplified view of this artist - and his home. For a start, his mother was a dress and corsetmaker, working and running a business at home, employing assistants. She was not only a homemaker, not entirely private and secluded. Obviously her son also worked - painted - at home. But this world was far from claiming him exclusively. He had various studios at different times outside of his home, at one point sharing with his friend Pierre Bonnard. Early on, he and Bonnard were, for a short time, active members of a group of young artists who called thems elves the Nabis (prophets). They were influenced by Gauguin. This early period in his career made a profound impact and weaned him from naturalism to a quite different style in which he endeavored to paint the idea or atmosphere of a subject, rather than depict accurately every last detail. This set up a tension in his work, which stayed with him all his life - a conflict, even, between the specifically observed and the generalized. But he was never comfortable with generalizations. One of the Nabis' preoccupations was the large-scale decoration of walls, escaping to a degree from the easel painting. They were also persuaded that a painting should be understood as, primarily, arrangement of areas of color on a flat surface. Vuillard made a number of large-scale wall decorations, and the "decorative" in all his work was to remain henceforth a potent element. This interest, however, is at its most vital and original not in the wall paintings themselves, but when the decorative texture s and patterns he saw in a domestic interior - rugs, bed clothes, dressmaking materials, and wallpapers - are an integral, and sometimes actually overwhelming and claustrophobic part of the atmosphere of that interior. Vuillard's work was once described as similar to tapestry or embroidery, made out of colored wools. Its structures do seem woven - rather freely - out of strands, textures, and filaments as well as patches, spots, and arabesques of paint. The painter Matisse learned a great deal from Vuillard's confrontation of patterned decorativeness and natural observation, and this has never been sufficiently emphasized. Another dichotomy in Vuillard's life as an artist was a play between seclusion and privacy on the one hand and the demands of a surprisingly active (for such a reticent individual) social life on the other. A mix of patronage and friendship characterized his social life. Lucie Hessel, the wife of a picture dealer, was one of the married women with whom Vuillard had a close relationship, which seems to have been free of impropriety. Madame Hessel apparently valued Vuillard as a compliant confidant and lis tener, while he reciprocated the friendship and often painted her. She, like his mother, was seen as part of her own home setting, merging into it. Thomson comments: "One has the impression that her conversation was lively and her company agreeable. However [Vuillard] also commented on her changing moods - often anxious or querulous." HIS paintings of Mme. Hessel, closer to portraiture than those of his mother, whose face is often lacking in detail, observe her character's changeability. His friendship with her also gave Vuillard the scope to study environments outside his own home, and allowed him more objectivity. He liked to think of himself as merely an outside observer - he said as much - but the paintings that are most his are those with a degree of heart-felt subjectivity. It is perhaps a lack of such subjectivity that makes his painting connected with the theater and his wall-decorations less engaging. The theater, for which he painted scenery, also suggested a preferred medium - "colle" or distemper, which he used even more than oil paint. It has a kind of chalky dryness, particularly when used on paper or cardboard, as if he wanted it as a needed check to the naturally fluidity or ease evident in his drawings. In these, his pencil seems to wander like a kitten with a ba ll of wool, and magically out of the entanglement emerge the most acute observations. Though the intimate paintings of his home and mother remain Vuillard's most moving vision, there have been efforts in recent years (for instance in the current exhibition from which the illustrations here are taken) to pay more attention to his later portraiture, his theater work, his decorations, and his landscapes. As a landscape painter he moves into garden and park rather than into wide open spaces of real countryside. The sky seems blocked out. It is as if he viewed landscape as an extension of the interior spaces of the house and as the setting - much like stage scenery - for quiet human presences. Landscape - no less than drawing room or dining room - he saw as part of the tapestry of light and contained spaces out of which paintings could be made. But it was inside the house that his originality is most stimu latingly apparent.

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