Not Without Honor

John Haber
in New York City

Edouard Vuillard

If one remembers the Nabis at all, one may remember them as a way-station between Gauguin and Matisse, without the daring of either one. The daring, however, was still there, and painters knew what it meant to them.

One may recall a single pronouncement, by Maurice Denis, that came to define Modernism: "Remember that a picture—before being a battle horse, a nude, an anecdote, or whatnot—is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order." Yet Denis himself soon went off to focus on religious subjects. One may never have heard of Paul Sérusier, who pulled the movement together and (borrowing from a largely forgotten poet) gave it its name. One may think of just two artists, Edouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard, who kept Post-Impressionism alive within middle-class surroundings that others had left behind.

One may not remember that its name was not French but Hebrew, for prophets, but then not every prophet has seen the promised land. Now a retrospective of Vuillard at the Jewish Museum helps recall why. Edouard Vuillard's The Album (Woman in a Striped Dress) (National Gallery of Art, 1895)Subtitled "A Painter and His Muses," it follows him as a Jew in Paris, up to his death on the eve of the Nazi invasion. It argues for his closeness to his dealers and patrons, assimilated Jews as well, and even more to their wives. It aligns those changing relations with changes in his work, away from other artists and the avant-garde. It also challenges one by the unsettling detachment in all his work—from his sitters quite as much as from Gauguin's allegories of the flesh or Matisse's joy of life.

Unreality and refinement

Apparently not every Jew with a salon was named Gertrude Stein. But then not everyone in attendance obsessed over fame and Paul Cézanne. From the show's first painting, in 1889, Vuillard seems obsessed mostly with himself. He poses as a painter in his grandmother's apartment, his bearded silhouette set against pale green, looking older and wiser than his twenty-one years. He is declaring himself in the company of Edgar Degas, but of someone else as well. An unidentified man hovers over his shoulder, like a companion, a double, or a ghost.

They are mirror images—and not only, figuratively, of each other. A bottle holds its own reflection in the mirror, as the only clue to the puzzle. A painting on the wall behind, cut off, refuses to reveal its mysteries, too, but everyone involved is looking earnestly without and earnestly within. Vuillard has adopted realism to symbolism's psychic unreality and the decorative refinement of Japanese art, with evident pride and discomfort at them all. He has learned from Paul Gauguin, but who wants a naked flesh and the primitive when one can have Paris? And who wants Paris when there is so much to face in one's room?

The formula may sound more northern than French, like Edvard Munch without screaming, and Vuillard's Paris at first centered on the theater of August Strindberg and Henrik Ibsen. He spend much of the 1890s designing stage sets, lighting, and posters, equally at home in Ibsen's realism and later darkness. The curators, led by Stephen Brown, see his painted scenery as an early interest in murals. Vuillard spends the next fifty years brightening, bit by bit, in more comfortable and spacious bourgeois surroundings. To this day, critics cannot decide on when he lost it, although most agree that he did. He never quite loses, though, the unreality and detachment.

His decade with the Nabis pretty much coincides with his place in the textbooks. A few paintings have sharp, almost cartoon outlines—between Gauguin and Denis. One closer to Pierre Bonnard has a vertical screen cut off at left, with red and black dashes across white. A woman's dress seems to be walking off of its own accord. Félix Vallotton, a Swiss painter, remains a lifelong friend. He takes them all, though, one step further from reality.

He has found his theme of the tension between exterior and interior worlds. He compresses even a small apartment, not toward Denis's painterly ideal, but toward a confusion of shapes and glances. He cuts off that red screen, just as he cuts off a double portrait of mother and daughter all but to the exclusion of the daughter. One has to think about his own psychic exclusions, for his mother lived with him till her death. A couple share a small table in a night café, but their hands and eyes never quite meet. When Vallotton shares a canvas with Vuillard's first muse, the two figures glance and gesture three ways.

His subjects almost always look down—reading, writing, sewing, knitting, and thinking. A woman reaches out to daylight by opening a window, like a woman by Jan Vermeer, but she is in black for mourning. Eyes look ghostly or shut. In another series of lithographs, again from 1899, patterned wallpaper gives the only perspective. He also takes up photography, the year of the very first Kodak rolls of film, in 1895. He has, however, found his muse.

Brooding on success

So, at any rate, says the museum. He meets Thadée Natanson, from a family of Polish-Jewish bankers. Natanson's magazine of culture, La Revue blanche, and his patronage opened doors—including a first mural commission. So did his wife, Misia, with her salon. A pianist and the daughter of a sculptor from Saint Petersburg, she could well have stood for Vuillard's complex ideal of assimilation, culture, and apartness. There is little evidence that their attachment grew to sex, but at least he allows her to have dark eyes and her husband only blank lids.

His backgrounds are already lightening, but still carefully unrevealing. Subjects stand oddly close to or far from the picture plane, refusing a unity or a center. Vuillard may count as a serious painter, but he paints the whole time on cardboard. Then, though, comes the new century—and, with it, a gallery and whole new social world. The Nabis have their first group exhibition there in 1900.

Jos Hessel of the Bernheim-Jeune gallery, too, has a wife, Lucy. The museum describes variously them as the painter's second family, a lively social circle, and an open marriage—meaning you know who. Regardless, they brought with them an ease beyond anything that Vuillard had experienced, and it shows increasingly in his work. At first the pictures are only slightly larger and, until World War I. Even the ones best known to New Yorkers, two views of Paris in the Guggenheim's collection, use distemper on cardboard mounted on tall canvas. With the quick-drying medium, he approached murals almost like house painting.

His paint has grown thinner, but also brighter and denser, looking back to Post-Impressionism. The colors, like the back of a gilded chair, are more at ease with charm and luxury. Scenes go beyond interiors, to Normandy and the coast, where the Hessels had a second and third home. Interiors, too, become more spacious, with views of surrounding walls and uncluttered floors. And they contain people, not just shadows, at home within. Lucy sits by a window and in a meadow, in what the exhibition calls "erotic indolence."

Perhaps, but the sky is growing dark, clouds settle into trees, and landscape and people alike are brooding. Families could equally be lounging or lurking, and they never interact. The walls may indeed have roots in stage design, and they could be waiting for the play to begin. They include the Bernheim's little boy, Claude, who retreats into a shadow above three black diagonals. It takes a moment to realize that he occupies a sofa.

Doors could serve as points of entry or screens, a copy of the Venus de Milo as art or as a ghost. The roses beside it look about to slide off the table. The brightest landscape is also the strangest. Somehow a yellow line stands for twilight in Brittany, and four people cluster on a bench as if in all this expanse they had nowhere to go. There is airiness whenever Lucy enters the scene, but also isolation. The paintings still puzzle over whether art should look within or connect.

How close he can get

At this point, the retrospective cheats on chronology. Before the late work, it has a room just for murals. They include two more tall works from after 1908, of Paris in flower. With those from the Guggenheim, they hang in four corners, like French windows. The murals also include two from 1894 and 1895 (one later reworked), in concentrated white, yellow, and crimson. They compress vegetation and wallpaper, as if Claude Monet had repainted the Unicorn Tapestries.

They include a large oval, begun in 1917 and reworked in 1930—the interior of a tea room meant for a tea room, in a red sharp as a negative. A square chandelier, like something by Frank Lloyd Wright, echoes in a wall trellis and touches of Art Nouveau. They compete in turn with a tea service in white, coming out of the picture plane, and half-lit faces out of Pablo Picasso. These are a vista, but as filtered through art and architecture. So are the two tall pairs. One is seeing, as through an actual window, but looking down, and one is seeing the same scenes at two different times of day.

The murals work together because Vuillard's greatest intensity has a way of bringing out his detachment. They also make one last claim for a career as a whole, connected by art and women. The retrospective wants the prophecy of the 1980s fulfilled. There it fails. Probably everyone will still have one's own thoughts on where he went wrong, perhaps in 1900 or perhaps from the very start. For me, the end came with a room for the last portraits, during and after the war.

The exhibition continues on after that, with photographs and a few interiors from the 1930s. Every so often, something still surprises—a bare spot as more intense color even than paint, a red against red, another strange mirror. One has, too, the poignancy of hindsight for a Jewish elite, including the wife of a man soon taken to a concentration camp. That little boy, Claude Bernheim, died at Auschwitz. Mostly, though, one sees caulky surfaces, an enforced grandeur, and displays of wealth and leisure. Architecture loses its point of view and its paradoxes, and decoration becomes fashion.

One could cringe in embarrassment at picture-postcard families or a banker from Lazard-Frères. Lucy grows old gracefully, with white hair, while an adopted child plays hide-and-seek. Are these the Hessels of the Bard College museum—and the origin of today's cutthroat collectors? Probably not, but they make a good reminder of how society mattered more to Vuillard than symbolism all along. The curators compare him to Marcel Proust, but Proust is bringing memory into the present, while Vuillard is always in the present—give or take a considered distance.

Bonnard liked risks, from a frank sex scene to anticipations of Henri Matisse. Maybe that is why his late work has found admirers, who may feel that they have stumbled on an Emile Zola novel for a late modern afternoon. Like a proper Nabi, Vuillard thinks in surfaces. He has no nudity and little obvious love. He experimented more, though, from photography to murals, and he gave up worrying sooner over the claims of realism, symbolism, and abstraction. At his best, he is never sure just how close he can get.

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"Edouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses, 1890–1940" ran at the Jewish Museum through September 23, 2012.


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