‘A Sort of Intimate Whirlwind’

The Intimate Interiors of Edouard Vuillard

an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum May 18 to July 30, 1990

The Intimate Interiors of Edouard Vuillard

catalog of the exhibition by Elizabeth Wynne Easton
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston/The Smithsonian Institution Press, 152 pp., $24.95 (paper)

Edouard Vuillard is generally counted among modernism’s disappointments. The note of disappointment is struck by even so nonjudgmental a source as the Columbia Encyclopedia, which in the second of its two sentences on the artist says that his early paintings of home life “have a brooding tension that was supplanted by works of a lighter, more decorative vein after 1900.” Like De Chirico and Kandinsky, he lost it, that old brooding tension we love so well, in a fussy middleaged pedantry, a mistaken attempt at refinement and broadening. Vuillard suffers from comparison with his close contemporary, lifelong friend, fellow Nabi, and name-mate Bonnard; as Bonnard aged, he moved south to the Côte d’Azur and got wilder and freer in his coloring, and gave modernism some of its most luscious masterpieces, breakfast tables and bathing women painted with a playful, incandescent fury that, after so much false fury in these intervening decades, still seems startlingly fresh.

Vuillard, on the other hand, stayed in Paris, continued living with his mother, got taken up by monied people, painted society portraits and detailed interiors of the Louvre and big decorative panels and opera scenery, and in his increasingly chalky, representational style revoked the arresting, willful distortions by which his Postimpressionist generation, under the influence of Gauguin and the Symbolists, had sought to transcend what Maurice Denis called “the stupidities of effortful imitation” and “the false witness of naturalism.”

Ergo, let us look only at the early work, says the guiding spirit behind The Intimate Interiors of Edouard Vuillard, a show of over a hundred works from the years between 1890 and 1900, which originated in Houston and, after a spell in Washington, has come to roost in the Robert E. Blum gallery of the hospitable if not exactly handy Brooklyn Museum. For those who have been conditioned by MoMA’s recent Cubism blockbuster to enjoy small, brownish canvases—or cardboards, to specify Vuillard’s favorite medium in his intimist phase—the show offers some subtle delights. “Charming,” the adjective that smallish and narrowly focused shows normally elicit, somehow fails to apply. Except in his lithographs, Vuillard is rarely charming, in a way that Bonnard almost always is, as one can see at a glance where the two are exhibited side by side. Something somber, thoughtful, and clotted in Vuillard keeps the charm from bubbling up, and his later works, executed with a certain resolved lightness and dash, as by a man who has put his problems behind him, have failed to charm posterity.

The smallness and roughness of many of the works on exhibit, whose underlying cardboard is often allowed to register as a dominant color, suggest a private purpose in their creation, only a shade more public than the notebook sketches Vuillard was in the habit of making. Though Vuillard, born in 1868 of a retired soldier and a much younger woman who became in her widowhood a corset maker, was exhibiting by 1891 and by 1892 received his first commission for decorative work—panels of canvas…

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