Published  21/06/2004

The enigma of Édouard Vuillard

The enigma of Édouard Vuillard

Vuillard: From post-impressionist to modern master
Royal Academy, London
31 January-18 April 2004

Revisiting Vuillard on the last day of the exhibition, one is prone to many afterthoughts dominated by an overwhelming sense of intangible realities, which simply prolongs the mystery. Perhaps, that quality is what so impelled the crowd of the bewitched, and it was not so much the beauty and texture, the masterly technique so painstakingly applied, nor the sense of a lost world, a Paris that is no more, a culture and a bourgeois milieu that have simply gone.

But then, one is reminded of a previous attempt to gauge Vuillard, researched and selected by John Russell in 1971, and so intelligently organised by the late Mario Amaya for the Art Gallery of Ontario, itself following on from the Museum of Modern Art, New York, when Vuillard's friend Pierre Bonnard (and fellow Nabi) was feted, and succeeded in 1954 by that on Vuillard. As the subsequent Paris exhibition on Bonnard had shown, it was precisely the sublimity, the intimacy of scene and magical sense of colour that pitched the work of Bonnard so high in critical and public acclaim. The exhibitions on Vuillard have dealt with an altogether more problematic artist, and yet one that, in the final analysis, would seem to be more exploratory in form and content, in the modernist sense. Amaya focused on a Vuillard, most of whose early work had been lost, and whose graphic work had tended to be routinely ignored, in all their freshness and originality of technique. But Vuillard gave up colour lithography at the turn of the century - just when it was reaching a summit of fashionable exposure - with a mere forty black and white examples remaining to tantalise a growing appreciative public. Amaya innovatively included in the Ontario show (which travelled to San Francisco and Chicago) examples of Vuillard's Kodak snapshots, the camera being for Vuillard a kind of aide-memoirefor picture composition later. What was interesting in this connection was the role the camera played in distorting, foreshortening, perspectival riddles, and in the cropping of picture frames. Indeed as Amaya claimed, 'much of what seemed "modern" in Vuillard was directly derived from this mechanical means of notation'. The magical powers of the accordion diaphragm were to allow this 'instant' spontaneity to be captured. But true to a painter of his time, Vuillard 'never allowed the camera to "draw" the final design; he almost always shifted or re-shaped or spread out the scene in the way he thought necessary'.

The same personae reoccurred in Vuillard's work again and again, in a manner that Ingmar Bergman as a film director would echo. We become familiar in the first instance with these individual characters, and are intrigued and relieved when they reappear, in further sequences of work. We never quite become bored with Misia Natanson, 'apple-faced, posing against her flowery wallpapers, pouting at the grand piano, or caught by surprise in the eerie glow of a yellow oil lamp'. Indeed, there was a reflective essence in Vuillard's contemplation of such an inner circle of friends and relations, which sought out secrets rather than simply accepted their currency. Vuillard himself formed lifelong friendships, as with the architect Frédéric Henry, the musician Pierre Hermant, as well as Roussel.

Another particular quality of Vuillard was his ability to capture the essence of the feminine environment, in which he undoubtedly felt at home. Vuillard was drawn by the comportment of such females in the great parks of Paris. Refusing to be labelled as a portrait painter, Vuillard produced a number showing Parisian professional men at the summit of their achievements, anticipating ciné-vérité, by showing the dentist poised, for example, or the desks of successful sitters carefully displaying an inventory of such everyday objects deemed important or relevant by the sitters. Reportedly, Vuillard went to the cinema twice a month, seeing such works as Jean Renoir's, 'La Grande Illusion' (1937), or the films of Marcel Pagnol or Jacques Feyder. He sought out that twilight cinematic vision shown in Eric von Stroheim's, 'Foolish Wives' (1922) or Renoir's, 'La Règle du Jeu' (1939), appropriately for his awareness of the fall of natural light, the moving play of shadows. Earlier, in 1906, his 'a game of draughts' incorporated what is essentially a panning shot positioned. Given the period richness and subtlety of his interior, their fabrics and the dresses, we are reminded at the exhibition of how skilfully Vuillard avoided the banalities of, say, 'Gosford Park'. Out of doors, as with 'Place Vintimille' (1911), the five panels form a scintillating and amazing view of the place, as viewed from the first floor window, a kind of sublime panning shot of la ronde.

In the 1950s, for an ever-appreciative international public, French film released the full parade of such sensibilities about privacy, shadow light and fabric, in the work of Rene Clair, such examples as 'Les Grandes Manoeuvres' (1955) with the wistful Michele Morgan, or the street scenes in 'Quatorze Juillet' (1933); or 'Juilette ou la Clef des Songes' (1951), by Marcel Carne. In the memorable vignettes of such masterworks lay the fulfilment of the experimentation of Vuillard. One could not claim this for Bonnard, awash in the glow of high colour. Looking back retrospectively from the 21st century, we can define what perceptions thus contributed the most to modernist vision.


This is not to denigrate a masterly blockbuster of an exhibition at the Royal Academy. The same appreciative, middle class, middle-aged visitors as Vuillard painted in his scenes, have thronged the galleries, self-justified in their happy, reflective silences. Probably, for the most part, they have not realised the true importance of Vuillard but they have also not sought to break through the enigma of Vuillard. To do that would be disquieting, and would put their own mute lives within a critical frame. The massive catalogue goes no further in exploring these sensibilities, nor in making any more transparent the figures behind the drapes and swathes of fabric. Only transferring them to the medium of film, let alone photography, would make that possible.

Who next will tackle the mystery of Vuillard, who died unmarried and motherless in 1940? Unfortunately, an exhibition cannot happen again for decades, tant pis.


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