To appreciate Édouard Vuillard’s importance for early modernism, you need to be ruthless and discard most of what he produced after a short heyday in the 1890s. By the time he reached thirty Vuillard had done his best work. D. H. Lawrence, my favourite writer as a teenager, said ‘Trust the tale not the teller,’ meaning look at the work not the writer’s ideas or professions about what he thought he was doing, and in Vuillard’s case concentrate on the tiny, inspired paintings and don’t spend your time worrying about the causes of the long aftermath of inferior production.
The huge Vuillard exhibition of 2003-04 in Washington, Montreal, Paris and London dragged along behind it one of the heaviest catalogues ever. Of all imaginable candidates for such megalo-treatment Vuillard is among the most improbable. Far better was one of the tiniest exhibitions in recent memory at the Barber Institute in Birmingham, and a selection of 4 or 5 pictures on view around the same time in the secluded basement of the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
Vuillard at his most special and intense explores his love of visual mistakes, where different surfaces melt blotchily toward undifferentiated sameness, leading to a sense of being lost in a womb-like place, an enveloping tissue of universal feminine stuff. Here surface pattern is a soup or delirium, best of all when even human faces become indecipherable, the indecipherable itself a greatly to be desired state of bliss.
Not that all of the best Vuillards go as far as this. They may depict a world of blobs, not collapsed to oneness, yet in their own way drastically reduced. And this may partly explain why the smallest Vuillards are often the best, and why in larger spaces, marked by signs sometimes as literal as higher ceilings, among too many things and too much empty space, the tension goes out of the work.
The idea of the close-up is a big and ramifying one, and in Vuillard often crucial to his characteristic effects. Its elements include the cropping of forms as if some force prevents you from seeing them all, or is it that the narrower focus stems from you, that your attention demands a small field if there’s to be any hope of doing justice to what reality has thrown at you? Reflecting on that immense and ramifying work Modern Painters Ruskin made the astonishing claim that ‘at least I did justice to the pine’, perhaps his way of acknowledging that this work in three volumes had finally focused more on landscape than on the art it had set out to treat. One can get lost in the tiny just as thoroughly as in the vast.
The little painting above, called perversely ‘The Conversation’, finds so much to say about its confined subject that there isn’t room for all of it. The white blouse in particular contains a universe of suggestion that baffles discovery past a certain point. The two figures are of such strikingly different sizes that we want to pursue the matter, but how? Distances are small, yet feel great, and small objects abandoned on a table can seem lost in immensity. These various discoveries that less is more do not look that difficult, yet the extreme rarity of other artists’ getting this as right as Vuillard does, makes us wonder. There’s the small population of elements and there’s the overall smallness, the dimensions of the picture, which brings the point home with special strength, as in Kafka. Here smallness is no accident, but fervently meant.
The population of these pictures has inspired endless speculation. Vuillard never married and lived with his mother until she died when he was 61. She had a dressmaking business carried out in the home, supporting the two of them until he began to make a living from painting. His mother and sister and the seamstresses employed in the business are taken to be the figures in the paintings and prints of the 1890s featured here.
Around ‘The Chat’ which shows an older woman in black and a younger one in white and appears to take place in a bedroom, a strange narrative has grown up, seemingly confirmed by friends of the artist. The young woman is Vuillard’s sister, the dress is her wedding dress and the mother is discussing sex with her daughter on the wedding day. A strange moment for such a conversation, not one which Vuillard would have sat in on.
There is undeniably an interesting tension between the figures, close together but formally opposed in several ways, in a world of browns and brownishness with two tiny accents at opposite ends, the blue cloth and the green plant.
In ‘The Yellow Curtain’ the curtain (in fact a curtain in front of a curtain) is not yellow but ochre, and again a single tonality dominates the space, hiding richer detail behind, a trick like ‘I could show you more if I chose.’ It turns out that the sameness of the yellow curtain is more interesting than the secrets behind it, which we see more than enough of anyway. How mesmeric all the erratic detail in the curtain turns out to be. That is where the real activity is concentrated .
Next a close-up with a vengeance, ‘Two women taking coffee’, another problematic title which reduces uncertainty to clarity. The corner of a room is seen from above, an angle at which the two figures are crushed and joined together until we can’t easily, perhaps can’t ever, tell exactly what it is we are looking at, forms as fundamentally broken down as the words sometimes are in Beckett, whose questioning of the medium he works in is equaled by Vuillard, in a similarly deadpan way. A strange richness in the colouring, few colours but more than you think (as you find when you count them), strange to us initially because we are fooled by the throwaway nature of the subject.
The faces and the forms where they join seem a particular marvel. We feel this most strongly with the second woman, whose features and the angle of her head can be read in more than one way. That such richness can come out of such smudges surprises us, but maybe much richness is a form of indistinctness. The other chair behind, in which the second woman sits, but leans far out of, joins itself unnervingly to the first woman’s head, a general amorphous blob like the mysterious and arbitrary forms one runs into constantly on maps.
Another close-up, the smallest and most baffling of all, called ‘The Seamstresses’ looked from across the room like a vast landscape on an opera or ballet stage, receding sharply to the right. Close-to, I could see that I had read the faces as clouds or cliffs, faces which overlapped and were both looking left at a folding object (its colour weirdly brightened by the camera), perhaps a dress pattern?
There’s no ground here; the brown I took for the stagefloor I now think a sewing machine, and the river of cloth to the left isn’t the other girl’s clothes but more stuff waiting to be fed into the machine. And the sense of wild motion? On one hand it isn’t there at all; on the other it’s all there is. Out of such simple materials Vuillard makes spatial magic that remains finally impenetrable.
As time went on, Vuillard relied more and more on repeating patterns covering entire walls. They start as backgrounds and then change places with foregrounds or merge eerily with figures, who disappear into them. Occasionally the patterns squirm nervously with life, as in this seated figure with a face like a crescent moon, which is to say a rudimentary, non-human form, that picks up its glare from somewhere that doesn’t light up the black dress, which has nonetheless its deeper shadows. But the deeper black isn’t performing like normal shadows: it settles into the recesses of the clothes or of the character. Here he begins to seem a philosophical painter, probing the murk in which his subject is immersed.
There’s a print of a similar subject that goes even further in fading the figure into its background, until it is so faint it threatens to vanish but shimmers there, undeniably present.
Prints with their smaller range of tones allowed Vuillard to pull off such spatial conundrums and ambiguities more easily, their faintness like a magician’s sleight of hand. At first I thought it was a joke to call this ‘Convalescent’ a coloured lithograph. Then I noticed the yellow tinge on the wicker (?) chair and the practically invisible blotches on the wall. How much energy springs from those little touches, propelling the almost occluded chair to the centre of the narrative. The old woman has left the chair far behind, though I wondered if we weren’t meant to see her still sitting in it. And the figure which looms behind it, but is actually halfway between the chair and its sitter–other images make us think this strange attendant is meant for the daughter, because we have seen this very same craning posture before. On second thought, such turning toward anecdote is too much like trusting the teller not the tale. Going by the shapes alone, we detect something sinister in this solicitude: Vuillard’s interiors are not just a game of Happy Families. Here the spatial compression, three points on a path, and the contradictory relative sizes make this an uneasy tangle of flatness.
The stripes on the old woman’s robe convey an extraordinary sense of freedom. Seeing something so boringly regular violating its nature so completely, we participate in the artist’s thrilling escape from his constricted lot.
The prints in the Birmingham exhibition showed Vuillard repeatedly finding new means of achieving reverse-images of visual conundrums he had produced in painting. In ‘The Dressmaker’ the subject is shown against the light which blots out large parts of her, her neck and much of her face. So, strong light appears in the work only through what it causes to disappear. Its power is felt negatively and dominates through emptiness, above all in the blank rectangle of the large window which looms over the work crowded together at the bottom of the frame. The spirit of this print seems notably Japanese, but it only looks positively Eastern in the collage of scraps along the right edge, flakes of coloured paper glued to a screen. The daring of this work and of Vuillard’s prints generally takes us far from the standard view of him stuck in his time-warp.
It is a risky business to give hints now of what this painter’s later, looser work looks like, but maybe a single transitional work which tackles a new line of subject matter and makes connection with the earlier, smaller interiors can illuminate what happens in the best Vuillards. This is called ‘Repast in a Garden’, isn’t even especially late (1898) and turns the outdoor scene into a kind of interior because it is night, and the space is framed by walls. Colours are muted by darkness and detail is blurred; special conditions have kept us in something close to the old territory.
The final painting here belongs to the Barber Institute where this exhibition took place. It is spatially more complex than those which have preceded it. The patterns in the dressing gown are extensive and endlessly ponderable, and the carpet is so irregular it defeats all efforts to bring it to heel. The play with the reflection is initially delightful, and the frame within the frame that creates a different picture entirely, and yet… Perhaps I am dreaming to think that he has lost purchase on the primary reality of the place and become infatuated with a richness of things rather than a more intense richness of vision? Given my looming sense of what lies ahead, perhaps I am willing the tale to end badly.
Around this time Vuillard bought a Kodak camera and began to take pictures, which his mother printed from his negatives. One of them from 1902-3 shows her doing her hair in front of the very piece of furniture shown in the previous painting. Like many of the other photographs it shows a more cluttered interior than the ones we see in the paintings of the 1890s. Had Vuillard regularly simplified the detail he found around him, or, as their fortunes improved, did the Vuillards trade simpler furniture for something grander? The first is probable, but later paintings do show fuller, more grandiose spaces. A darker space can take us back to a simulacrum of more innocent times.