Vuillard and uncertainty

 

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I didn’t intend to write about Vuillard again, but hadn’t anticipated how different the small (but much bigger) exhibition in Bath (appearing later in Edinburgh and Dublin) would be from the one last year in Birmingham. Birmingham was entirely caught up in the limited cast of characters of the household. Bath ranged outside and beyond the house, still keeping the view rigorously confined, Vuillard’s guiding feature being a voluntary confinement in which dislocations of vision can act with explosive force, freaks of perception which don’t necessarily lead to untethered or unfathomable emotions but into an emotional no-one’s land to which the right comparison might be Kafka.

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The exhibition began in the home, with an awkward family scene in the weird green light of evening. Three generations are gathered round the table, along with two looming bottles like extra guests.

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We recognise the mother, grandmother, and daughter from our last outing with Vuillard. We could mistake the lone orange-bearded male for the artist himself, but the label steers us toward his brother, an unknown quantity.   The sister dominates, in a grotesquely twisted pose which reveals depths already familiar to the others, less so to us. She is wearing a dress like one in a portrait nearby, in a pattern like a lot of lively worms. Maybe she will explode.

 

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Next to this dinner table is The Ear, one of the oddest little pictures Vuillard ever produced. It shows the head and shoulders of a young female bent over and concentrating on something on the floor. Is she tying her shoe or looking for something lost? We are already far ahead of ourselves, because she doesn’t really look like a person at all. Her ear we only recognise through the helping hand of the picture’s title: it looks more like a half-closed eye. Beneath it are two detached bits of brightly lit flesh which could be the tip of a nose and part of an upper lip. Otherwise, shadow, with traces of an eyebrow (doubtful) and cheek (obscured by strands of hair). Above the features, elements of a punk hairdo in black and orange stripes, plaited into a denser chequered pattern beyond. Over the invisible forehead dangles a big black spider of loose hair-strands.

Maybe this picture just goes to show how far Vuillard’s need to strangen the familiar features of the world could go. Here the supposed subject pretty well escapes, and solutions to the uncertainty leave plenty of uneasiness behind.

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Very soon after comes another conundrum-picture that has an easier resolution. Two men in top hats seen close-up from behind. The sheen on one of the hats completely bisects the black mass, making it into two separate hats. But the deeper weirdness of this picture occurs further to the left. Instead of a hat, a giant black hand with four black fingers extended upward. This turns out to be another hat (or hair-do) after all, though one like a finger puppet mounted on a woman’s head, whose fainter body appears beneath. Like the others, this picture comes close to a visual joke. How can such a tiny sliver of reality constitute a subject? Well, it seems to. You go on enjoying the odd leftover spaces between the hats, and the contrast between the ‘brims’, if you can count the most nearly horizontal ‘finger’ a brim. The overlapping of the three bodies makes a nice consistency against the wild variations overhead.

Except in a formal sense, to call these male-female divisions an antagonism would be going too far. More interesting confrontations tend to take place indoors. Of all the fresh Vuillards in Bath, one called The Manicure perplexed me most.

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The picture starts from another extreme lighting effect, with the source hidden between the two figures. It took me several tries to decipher the manicurist, whose face doesn’t really appear, though turned toward us.  Part of the explanation is that we are not on-axis with the couple, as we perhaps think, but skewed to their right. That is how the light can miss her face completely, leaving a dark mask more like a spinning top than a human head.

So the pleasure in this configuration comes from its inhuman weirdness. And then there’s the dark lump to the left of the central pair. In the end I see this lump as a balding father and his little girl, with a bright red ribbon in her hair. In the meantime I have thought her a pet monkey, or the two of them an African carving, or a piece of furniture with a cloth over it.

What is this love of occlusion, of hiding the subject in shadow, turning people into hulks or lumps, and blocking off the space between them? Wherever it springs from, it works. It invests humdrum activity with portent, in a space loaded throughout with inscrutable depths.

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Other Vuillards thrive on blankness, not density, for a sense of a lot going on beneath a sparse surface. At first I took one of the most uncanny to be an expanse of sand leading to the forest-edge, with a track skirting it. At some point it dawned on me that this sand was not a beach but a wall blocking us off from the forest. And the traces of erased figures in the sand must have been marks on the wall, not occupants of the flatland. The two contrasting realms remain, one featureless, the other impenetrable. We think of other artists who value walls for their lack of content, like the Welshman Thomas Jones and the Catalan Antoni Tàpies.

In the exhibition the still life below gave an exaggerated impression of horizontality and of emptiness toward both ends, which doesn’t survive when it is isolated. I still think it is an exercise in dispersion and weightlessness, in spite of its magical vacancy having partly evaporated when it is removed from the peculiar space of the exhibition.

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Publicity for the exhibition made a separate picture of the flowers in their  vase, a little composition which soon fell to pieces, set against the ‘flowers’ of the tablecloth — bigger, vaguer, more unstable. All the elements are spread wide, and won’t sit down or cohere. The satchel is the worst, levitating rashly in mid-air, deserting its rightful place.

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As in Birmingham, prints in Bath showed Vuillard dissolving reality’s there-ness even more radically than in paint. The cover of a set of lithographs has another strange confrontation between a hulking man (in pyjamas this time) and a younger woman. The girl by herself is a miracle of vagueness. In a couple of the prints in this series figures at tables merge magically into the setting and each other.

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One of the best discoveries of the exhibition was the reappearance of glue-based distemper, a medium first met in Vuillard’s work for the theatre and now, in its reappearance, freeing him back into the boldness of the 1890s with two paintings of 1910 and after, one of a Breton farmhouse above a garden like an embroidery, whose rich pattern dissolves into squiggles, separate segments, and finally into chaos.

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For Vuillard perception is always verging on disorientation. This flirtation with unreason is one of his deepest promptings, an escape down the rabbit hole of perception into a phantasmagoria of forms that have freed themselves from the restraints of sense.

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Looking closely at the work in distemper, you find such dissolutions as a children’s smock like icing on pastry, and its mother’s dress a snow flurry, in a familiar world become entirely strange.

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Antoni Tàpies: writings on the wall

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How to explain never noticing Antoni Tàpies until now? Is it because of insoluble problems with the reproducibility of the work, whose material presence is essential and doesn’t come through in photographs? Tàpies goes on calling his works paintings long after this word ceases to fit. Instead of pictures of suffering, Tàpies presents the martyred body itself, a canvas defaced by gouging, tearing and brutal insertions, obscured by coverings that largely obliterate it or disguise its existence. He calls the surface he works on a battleground, and all the marks or adjustments he makes, wounds, but his paradoxical goal is tranquility. He quotes Heraclitus, ‘all arises from discord,’ and ‘harmony comes from its contrary.’

Besides the Pre-Socratics one of his main inspirations appears to be Zen Buddhism with its appetite for sweeping away complexity of content in order to contemplate the void, in the shape of a blank wall or an expanse of raked sand.

It isn’t immediately evident from the work that Tàpies is a learned artist, whose grandfather owned a well-known bookshop in Barcelona, destroyed by bombing in the Civil War, and whose father had a large library. Wandering in the war-ravaged city Tàpies had the sense of a heritage taken away, a feeling exacerbated by two years recovering from tuberculosis (from age 17 to 19), confined first in his bedroom at home and then in a sanatorium.

Later he attributes key features of his work to all that time passed within the same narrow walls, in a space furnished only with a bed and a wardrobe with large mirrors on its doors; features—wall, door, mirror—which dominate much of his work. He calls this period his forty days in the wilderness, a painful experience of deprivation ‘that may not have ended even now’. When you first meet the phrase, it is a shock to find him pointing to a Scriptural model in trying to describe his own progress as an artist. Is there really a religious painter hidden in the work of Antoni Tàpies and trying to get out?

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I first encountered this work in a little display called Writings on the Wall at Waddington Custot in Cork Street, which included six artists, half of them completely or nearly unknown to me (Tàpies one of these), only Brassai. Dubuffet and Twombly previously familiar. Brassai was represented by photographs of defaced walls in Parisian streets, defaced by punctures that someone chanced upon later and turned into the eyes of faces made with a few gouged lines, which were under- and over-written by other rough attempts at writing or drawing.

Brassai called these eyes ‘the eyes of the street’ and felt a demonic force in the rudimentary scratchings.  Dubuffet had photographed graffiti in similar places and drew graffiti-like pictures of his own, which became austere and illegible lithographs and etchings in black and white.

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Tàpies was present here in the largest work by far, called DUAT, consisting of a long horizontal expanse of sand like a beach, a surface of sufficient depth to write and draw in it with no finer instrument than a stick.  The main word duat (if it is a complete word) which I still don’t know the meaning or even the language of, is written in two different mediums—as dug out of sand, and as scrawled with an oversized pencil (the right half of A, and the whole of T). I can’t tell you how pleasing it was that someone had given up gouging and reverted to writing this word halfway through. It’s not the only sign of randomness in the work, just the most unapologetic.

I didn’t notice one of the main consistencies in Duat in the course of lots of looking (on more than one occasion). I’ve noticed only now that there are three ‘doors’ drawn in sand, evenly spaced across the top two-thirds of the canvas. All three are drawn in sand; only one is ‘open,’ having had the sand excavated from the rectangle and the missing door drawn in perspective (‘hanging open’) to the left of the empty opening.

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A frame is drawn in the sand around the middle door. There’s a mysterious build-up of sand like braided hair down one edge of the third door, evidence of raking or clearing the sand with some kind of scraper. These are not the most interesting details in the whole work, but sand is the most arresting of the various materials, and the one with the most life in it. The effect of the sand standing up on the wall, and not falling off, is like a magic trick that goes on delighting the spectator for a long time, like the drips and spirals of paint in a Pollock that you know came down onto the canvas from a height, but are now standing up and cancelling gravity.

Maybe the doors are windows, and the indoor shutters lying or falling at the bottom of the picture belong to them and have been exploded off, like a rock blocking a tomb, and the white (beach) towel is what’s left of the grave-clothes.

One of the first things someone coming to Tàpies notices is all the crosses. There are two of them here, in insignificant locations, one camouflaged as an X, and further obscured by forming only a part of the Roman numeral for eleven. Surely they aren’t that important in what this picture (without thinking I use this unsuitable word) means.

At this point maybe we should read what Tàpies has to say about the meaning of the cross in general and in his thinking—an emblem of suffering, a graph of the meeting and crossing of contrary forces, the world tree anchored in the centre of the earth, the linking of routes from the four quarters of the compass, the universal person formed of symmetrical binaries, and more. Turned a quarter-turn, the cross becomes an X, a sign used to delete something or multiply it.

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Even the letter T which appears often as an attenuated, parochial form of cross and one of the initials with which Tàpies signs his work can be etherialised in varnish like a spectre rising from a chest of drawers.

Tàpies feels a powerful urge to reduce symbols to the simplest graphs, but then to reload them with all the cultural baggage he seemed keen to escape or at least to strip of its parochial character.

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He was a passionate Catalan and reworked the Catalan flag (in Catalan Spirit, 1971), four red stripes on a gold ground, which at first seemed to me trivial and local, until I focused on how the red had become separate from the yellow and each stripe separate—different, individualised—from the others and written over and under with legible and illegible inscriptions that changed colour as the letters crossed the stripes. Tiny and indistinct replicas of the stripes skitter across the surface like the footprints of small animals or the sharp scratches of their fingers.

And the flag has been turned sideways from horizontal to vertical, or is it an earlier, archaic form taken from a coat of arms, itself a reminiscence of a moment after a battle when Louis the Pious dips four fingers in a Catalan count’s wound and writes them onto the dying man’s gold shield? So Tàpies’ rudimentary form materialises as a Wagnerian myth, and we’re back at art as magic, and now one of Tàpies’ favourite lines of Whitman flits through our heads ‘the priest leaves and the poet appears’.

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There are gruesomely literal Tàpies like Form of a Crucified Figure of 1959 or Material in the shape of an Armpit of 1968, and there are others just as poignant and in their own way as grisly, like Holes and Nails in White, also 1968, a dissected crucifixion which keeps the wounds and the nails apart, not the only time that Tàpies forces parts of the construction through from the back, a painful piercing of the flesh the whole way through. Here there’s another deformation of the surface, boiling up to become liquid after being solid, then congealing again and seeming bodily or visceral because of the imagery of pain.

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This is one of the most recessive instances of a recurrent Tàpies motif, elements of the composition fleeing the centre and ending up at the edge, even over the edge and out of our sight.

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Again the childishness of a magic trick which can make things disappear and persuade you they are gone for good, but these works are also fables of the transitory, in which the image is swept aside like marks in the sand by the tide, which doesn’t always bother to erase them completely.

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The most profound link in Writing on the Walls occurs between the walls of Brassai, pictures of hallucinatory vividness, of found objects located in particular Parisian streets at specific times of day, and Tàpies’ walls, which are not pictures of walls but objects which will hang on walls like paintings, yet are not paintings though he calls them that, but walls themselves, something more primary and immediate than canvas, a different order of reality, which incorporate earth in their substance and embody the Heraclitan magic of getting a spark of fire to erupt from a pile of rubbish composed of the humblest materials—sand, straw, string, rags, burnt and ruined things.  

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‘Writings on the Wall’ at Waddington Custot, 11 Cork Street, London W1 until 8 August