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 to be set into the walls of a private or public building—it is hard to believe any professional hope was attached to daubs as small and sketchy as The Seamstress (1891) and Workers at the Chiffonier (1892) or as scrubbily unfinished as A Seamstress (1892–1893). But in this same period, out of this same subject matter—Vuillard lived in crowded quarters with his mother the corsetière and his sister, her assistant, surrounded by the patterned materials and feminine minions of the garment trade—emerge denser and more finished works like Seamstress (1892–1895), The Flowered Dress (1891), and, the most ambitious and complex, Interior (1893), in which dotted patches are arrayed like swatches of cloth to create slices of space in which his human figures are almost lost.
A peculiarity (a charm, one might almost say) of Vuillard’s interiors is the elusiveness of their human inhabitants: one looks quite a while at The Landing (1891) before realizing that the patch of black beneath the arabesque of the stairs is a woman, and Child at a Window (1901) before seeing the child, and at At the Window (c. 1900) before becoming aware of the large motherly shadow in the foreground, and at Woman in Blue (1893) before seeing the second face and figure in the crook of the amazingly blue arm. The wallpaper in a Vuillard interior is often more vivid than the figures, and some of the figures, such as the hunchedover sister in Mother and Sister of the Artist (1893) seem to be trying to melt into the wallpaper.
This last painting is pre-emptorily called, by the show’s wall commentary, Vuillard’s best-known painting, and occasions quite a lot of psychoanalysis in the meticulous but faintly anxious catalog text by Elizabeth Wynne Easton. Mother and Sister is one of several that seem in their configurations to explore “the perplexing theme of his mother’s dominance and his sister’s submission” and to reflect “an unpleasant, even agonizing, relationship between mother and daughter.” Vuillard’s formidable mother, whose manufacture of corsets was the family mainstay until his commissions allowed her to retire by the end of the century, is usually presented frontally, at the solid center of things, and his sister, Marie, who escaped the family nest in 1893 by marrying her brother’s close friend and fellow painter Ker-Xavier Roussel, is often on the edge of definition, melting into shadow or huddling deferentially. Ms. Easton (and commentators before her) makes much of the “claustrophobic” qualities of the family interiors—the crowding wallpaper, the enlarged bureaus, the steep and unstable perspectives. Yet this viewer remained unconvinced that any psychological message was delivered beyond the unintentional one of the painter’s preferences and avoidances. Vuillard’s eyes frequently rested upon his mother, who shared his dwellings until her death when he was sixty, and sometimes he painted her as a comforting breadth of stripes (Woman Sweeping, 1899) or as sewing a swath of stripes (Madame Vuillard Sewing, 1895)—one of the most cheerful of the small cardboards, which happens to suggest, with its red stripes and white-flowered blue wallpaper, an American flag.
Suggestiveness was part of the aesthetic credo of the Revue Blanche, with which Vuillard was early associated and whose central figure was Mallarmé, who said, “Once an object is named, three-quarters of the satisfaction which the poem has to offer is lost. The poet should suggest it: that is his aim.” And Vuillard’s early work is certainly shy of naming, of undue and insistent definition. But an artistic idea more crucial to him, surely, and to the group of young printers who called themselves the Nabi after the Hebrew word for “prophet,” finds expression in the famous statement issued by another Nabi, Maurice Denis: “Remember that before it is a warhorse, a naked woman, or a trumpery anecdote, a painting is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.”
Though some of the faces and poses in Vuillard’s domestic scenes recall those of Edvard Munch, implied psychological content never dominates the Frenchman’s work as it does the Norwegian’s: angst may creep in, but it is not the topic. The morose downward tilt of Vuillard’s lamplit faces more than once reminded me of the foreshortened physiognomies drawn by the great Polish writer Bruno Schulz, who was also an art teacher and draughtsman of considerable expressive skill: Schulz’s drawings convey an intense impression of shyness, of avoidance. Like Vuillard, he was a lifelong bachelor—one of art’s monks.
Vuillard’s journals, which were released to public scrutiny ten years ago, forty years after his death in 1940, have disappointed those who hoped to reap detailed insight into the tensions of his family or of his inner and sexual life. Of the latter, hardly the most furtive trace remains. A few paintings from 1891, not in this exhibition, show a young woman in bed, tucked in chastely like a child, and some early twentieth-century works, as he attempted to reclaim the traditions of classic French art, do limn nudes, but there is nothing like the ardent and zealous visual embrace Degas, another resolute bachelor, exerted upon the female form. The one nude in Brooklyn, Seated Nude from 1892, shows Vuillard in his most cardboardy mood, his interest focused on the triangle of yellow light on the squatting figure’s back. She is, like the clothed working women of his mother’s shop and the female figures posed around the family table, essentially “a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.”
The most revelatory passage from Vuillard’s journals which Ms. Easton quotes is a long, even epic, reflection by him on the objects in his room, seen as he lies in bed:
the ceiling painted white, the ornament in the middle, vaguely 18th-century arabesques, the mirrored armoire opposite, the grooves, the molding of the woodwork, of the window, their proportions, the curtains, the chair in front of them with its back of carved wood, the paper on the wall, the knobs of the open door, glass and copper, the wood of the bed, the wood of the screen, the hinges, my clothes at the foot of the bed; the four elegant green leaves in a pot, the inkwell, the books, the curtains of the other window, the walls of the court through it, the differences of perspective through the two windows, one with a little patch of sky parallel to the window, in the other, making a perpendicular angle, the impression that results from only that corner….
Such a visual inventory, as his meditation continues, removes aesthetic prejudice and the idea of “bad taste,” and leads to the understanding of the world that was “the goal originally pointed out by those who first spoke of the modern and of modernity.” Then, “in the middle of all these objects, I was astonished to see Mama enter in a blue peignoir with white stripes…. The arrival of Mama was surprising—a living person. For the painter, the differences of shapes, of forms, were interest enough.”
It is very like a Vuillard painting—the human being just perceptibly distinguished from the patterns and angles of the decor. As with the larger and more luminous interiors of Vuillard’s American disciple Fairfield Porter, one looks in vain at the human figures and faces for some expression of intenser being, a residue of the painter’s interest in another personality. But no, the bodies with their colored clothes take up space, reflect light, impassively, with the same muteness as the other things.
How shy, how detached, how desexed was Vuillard? To judge from some of the reminiscences collected by John Russell in the book Vuillard (New York Graphic Society, 1971), which was prompted by the last Vuillard retrospective show in North America, he was noticeably depressive, with a slow-speaking taciturnity broken by erratic outbursts of temper. Thadée Natanson, one of the publishers of the Revue Blanche and the husband of Misia Natanson, the woman who above all seems to have sparked Vuillard’s interest, speaks of the warm springs of Vuillard’s nature, fed by domestic intimacy, being mixed with a chilly ennui:
The pale, shy, red-haired youth, deprived of almost everything, introverted, undecided, anxious about the future and tormented by his own ardent nature, felt himself a burden even more to himself than to his family, and gave way to depression…. And yet as his intelligence grew stronger, he succeeded in controlling depression by means of thought…. As a lad, he would become absorbed in contemplation of the windows opening on to the street, or the repetitive pattern of wallpaper.
Natanson’s niece, Annette Vaillant, anticipates in retrospect how “Monsieur Vuillard—with his round-toed boots, his soft collar, his slender bow-tie, the clean smell of his honey-colored beard—will bend over to kiss me before, once, again, he starts to clean his paintbrushes.” She remembers the vigorous Madame Vuillard, “playing a polka at full speed on her unpretentious upright piano,” and, like a child repeating what she has been told, reports how Vuillard “was happy to be with the mother he worshipped in her well-polished paradise.” But she also lets slip recollection of “his outbursts of anger” in which “losing all self-control, he would utter terrible words.” She sweetly adds, “I think the saints must be like that, too.”
As with Kafka, an aura of sanctity, of respect for the toll that ordinary living took on him, tinges his friends’ reminiscences: Claude Roger-Marx, whose Vuillard: His Life and Work came out in Paris in 1946, recalls:
Words rise slowly out of the depths of his nature, painfully even, but they are the right ones. He regulates and explains them by gestures. His speech is broken by frequent intervals, so anxious is he to express his true meaning. There is a questioning charm in his regard and his melancholy smile. He twists his fingers nervously or raises his hand to his brow. Nothing passes within his consciousness which is without weight and significance. The atmosphere seems cleansed of every impurity and around us reigns only calm and disinterestedness.
A touch of allowance, of forbearance, lingers in such a description, and Roger-Marx’s fond and scrupulous account, composed throughout the Occupation, ends with regret that “with so many great endowments—and no one since Degas and Lautrec could boast so many—Vuillard should have maintained [his] reserve…. What then restrained him?—was it fear of the subject, a dread of ridicule, a want of confidence in himself?” In a letter of 1897 to Maurice Denis, Vuillard wrote, “As for that plenitude of the will, that fullness of effort which you speak of, I can imagine what it’s like. But, whether from a curable infirmity or an innate weakness of character, I don’t often experience it.” He goes on to speak of “a moment when everything turned to ashes,” his creativity thenceforth subject to “a sort of intimate whirlwind.” He tells the theory-loving Denis, “The area in which I was quite certain of anything got smaller and smaller,” and “To sum up, I have a horror (or rather, an absolute terror) of general ideas that I have not arrived at by myself.”
Such a skeptical horror is honorable and fruitful enough, but in Vuillard’s case it was accompanied by some temperamental inability or psychic infirmity which put a premature ceiling on his talent, much as his flaming red hair early gave way to baldness, and his honeycolored beard turned white. As those who venture to Brooklyn discover in the Vuillard show’s final rooms, even such modest rays of vitality as his sister’s bearing a small daughter, and the social emanations of the Revue Blanche set dominated by the lively Misia Natanson, opened Vuillard up; his interiors became sunnier, more spacious, and, where his tiny niece Annette is depicted, whimsically affectionate. Such child-centered canvases as Annette’s Lunch and Child in a Room (both from 1900) have a breadth and variety of texture a world away from the sullen domestic interiors of the bygone decade. A child’s world of lush carpets and enchanted window glimpses is conjured up; Child at a Window (1901) brings us to the verge of Matisse, in the severe rectangles of its flat design and in its schematic, playful off-center spot of bright red. Ms. Easton cites to Vuillard’s credit that “the complex spatial role of Vuillard’s dots and patterns may have inspired Picasso in his Synthetic Cubist images of 1914” and that “Picasso and Braque could have taken their cue for their experiments in collage from Vuillard’s areas of unpainted canvas.” But it also has been cited to his discredit that he himself did not proceed to Cubism but instead retreated into what Roger-Marx calls “a wish to unlearn all he had been taught by Gauguin, the Impressionists and Degas.”
Vuillard’s alleged love for Misia Natanson has a shaky factual base in her autobiographical account of how, once while walking in the woods, she tripped and “Vuillard grabbed her, looked deep into her eyes, and burst into sobs.” But the paintings grouped as “Homages to Misia Natanson” do appear relatively generous in scale and animated in tone. In Misia and Vallotton in the Dining Room, rue Saint-Florentin (1899) Vuillard is excited enough to render not only the room’s busy decor but to individualize the two human figures, in Lautrec-like caricature. In The Red Peignoir (c. 1897), he stabbed with the reverse end of his brush in the wet paint to further search out the curves of her coiled hair and the odalisque form of her reclining, sumptuously swathed back. A large and elegant painting not in the catalog, Dans les fleurs (1895), perhaps the most impressive in the show, merges three female figures in the linear elaborations of wallpaper and flowers and achieves, with this characteristic suppression of distinctly human presence, something of a philosophical statement: all things merge. In Vuillard’s recessive sensibility, the long theological and Romantic exaggeration of human importance found little intuitive support. His sense of reality as one big nature morte strikes the modern note, and leaves it ominously hanging.
June 28, 1990