Grand Palais, Paris
Through January 5, 2004
Edward Saïd argued that much of European and American literature of the nineteenth century was built around a void: around the absence, as often ignored as acknowledged, of a non-European voice. Something parallel could be said of Edouard Vuillard, the subject of a serious and well-planned survey at the Grand Palais in Paris.
A close friend of Bonnard, a friend and colleague of Sérusier, Maurice Denis, Felix Vallotton and others (together they formed the loose group known as the Nabis), Vuillard’s work easily held its own against any other living artist until about 1895, when he slowly slipped into the decorative. Vuillard died in 1940, but after 1911 his work gets gradually stodgier, and larger. In the last ten years of his life it’s dreadful: overwrought society portraits in a fake Impressionist manner.
When did Vuillard change, and why? True, his best work was produced when he was closest to Bonnard, between 1890 and 1896. True, Vuillard could be derivative – there is one work in this show that’s a pastiche of Vallotton’s political prints, and in the Guggenheim’s version of “Place Vintimille” of 1908-1911 Vuillard actually inserted earlier iconic images by Bonnard.
But there’s something else. The finest room in this show displays a series of small works, many no larger than a postcard, but each an image of overwhelming intensity. The intensity comes in equal parts from Vuillard’s extraordinary sense of color and his extraordinary investment in various figures of women: the one illuminates the other. You move from one work to the other, and at the point when the emotional tension is about to overwhelm you comes another small painting, of a child holding a grownup by the hand, the grownup coming over the edge of the image, the child seen from a single, sharp angle.
It’s an amazing moment; it's as if Vuillard had shifted from his habitual intense flat planes to Bonnard’s quirky perspective while retaining his own intensity. It’s also the moment Vuillard’s emotional edifice starts to crumble.
Up until then Bonnard and Vuillard had taken up the logic of Symbolism which argued that color had narrative possibilities as powerful as line, and taken it to new depths: while Maurice Denis and Kerr-Xavier Roussel were busy making meaningful spiritual statements, Bonnard and Vuillard wanted to talk about women. Bonnard was able to bounce higher and higher from his erotic investment – he met his future wife, Marthe, in 1890, therefore ensuring for himself a lifetime supply of vulnerability. Vuillard could only sustain the same feeling for so long, and this so long lasted pretty much through the height of Symbolist theater, of which Vuillard himself was a major promoter. If you want to understand how Vuillard ended up chained to the hanky-panky of middle-class life in fin-de-siècle Paris, try sitting through Pelléas et Mélisande, which is either a deeply meaningful tale of spiritual love, or more likely a sordid bourgeois soap – what the French call “une histoire de cul.”
If you want to understand what Vuillard was like without the prop, explicit or implicit, of gendered imagery, look at the lettering he produced for theater programs: at a time when his collaborators Bonnard and Jarry were reinventing the conception of letter-shapes, Vuillard nervously played, not with the forms themselves, but with their background placement. The tension between surface and depth which produced vibrant emotional overtones in a his coloristic, representational work, here falls fall: writing was purely a formal problem for him. Eventually all of painting became a purely formal problem for Vuillard, and no matter how well it's done it leaves you cold. Why Vuillard was unable to function without an emotional investment in images of or about women is a mystery: around 1895 the poet Victor Segalen protested that Symbolism in the visual arts was a no-brainer anyhow, since all paintings are made of signs. There are people who manage to invest emotionally in letterforms, or pure pigment, or vaseline, and get away with it, but apparently Vuillard wasn't one of them. The signage for this show repeats the old story that around 1900 Vuillard had a wild, unrequited crush on his flamboyant patron at the Revue Blanche, Misia Sert. So far as I know the only person who made that claim was Misia herself, and Misia thought everybody had a crush on her. The story feels more like an artist’s last desperate attempt to whip himself into feeling, a parallel to the last volume of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past where the narrator brutally, almost inexplicably, turns from the Baron de Charlus begging to be whipped by burly sailors-for-hire, to the author’s own decision to seek his bliss where it belongs: in the creation of Charlus, of the author himself.
If longing alone could make you a great poet then every single in every single's bar would be another Shakespeare. It doesn’t work that way, though for Vuillard it did, ever so briefly.
[12-24-2003; last revised 7-26-2012]
The Saneman in the Attic