At home with vibrant emotion

France's Vuillard loved to paint domestic scenes, but in a radically new way


January 26, 2003|By Nancy Forgione | By Nancy Forgione,Special to the Sun

The art of Edouard Vuillard -- currently on sumptuous display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington -- expresses the spirit of his era even as it offers a deeply personal glimpse into his private life. Parisian culture in the 1890s put a high premium on the comforts of the home interior, and Vuillard shared that affection for domestic existence.

He loved above all to paint people in rooms, absorbed in ordinary household routines. They read, sew, sleep, share meals, converse and interact, mostly harmoniously, sometimes uneasily. But there is little else ordinary about these paintings. At his best -- and this exhibition contains many persuasive examples of his pictorial genius -- Vuillard makes you question the fundamentals of perception, of figure and ground, of patterns and solids, of nearness and depth.

Those rooms and their inhabitants, often identifiable as his family members and friends, are animated by light and color and emotional vibrations in a way that transcends everyday reality.

His household themes came from the tradition of Chardin and Vermeer, but he gave them a radical update. Along with his friends Pierre Bonnard and Maurice Denis, Vuillard was a member of the Nabis (from the Hebrew for prophet), a vanguard group of painters who banded together around 1888.

Stirred to action by the example of Gauguin, they set out not to reproduce the external appearances of things but to create art that would evoke emotions and internal states of mind or spirit. To this end, they distorted color, form and pictorial space, a subjective approach that allied them with the symbolist wing of postimpressionism.

For a decade, Vuillard painted on the cutting edge in a manner that predicted the radical steps toward abstraction that waited in the next century. But almost as suddenly as his boldness appeared, it vanished. In the last 40 years of his life, Vuillard became a successful but conventional portrait painter to the haute bourgeoisie.

Inside the home

Vuillard's domestic scenes from the 1890s are his best-known and appreciated works, and rightly so. In gathering so many of them into one place, this retrospective exhibition, which runs through April 20, reaffirms their rich artistic and psychological complexity. As the most comprehensive show on Vuillard since 1938, it, of course, has greater ambitions than that. It surveys his entire career, from 1888 until his death in 1940. In addition to the interiors, it offers an unsurpassed, and probably once-in-a-lifetime, opportunity to view the full range of his artistic activities, including his work for the avant-garde theater, large-scale decorative projects, landscapes, photographs and late portraits.

One of the great coups of this long-planned exhibition is to have assembled eight of the nine panels of the 1894 "Public Gardens" decor, his largest and perhaps finest decorative ensemble, which have not been together since they were sold at auction in 1929.

When Vuillard, born in 1868, decided in his late teens to become a painter, he did so with astonishing rapidity. By his early 20s, he was turning out innovative works that secured his place in the Parisian avant-garde. You can feel the excitement of his discovery in the first room of the exhibition, when his academic student exercises give way to the audacious Octagonal Self-Portrait of 1890, with its bright orange beard, citron yellow hair and brown continent-shaped shadow creeping across his forehead.

The expressive impact of Vuillard's best paintings derives not just from the figures' poses and gestures, but also from the use of intense color, exaggerated form and spatial ambiguity. This disperses emotional weight throughout the entire composition.

In Mother and Sister of the Artist, painted in 1893, he uses the solid black silhouette of the mother's form to establish her domination of the space, while the patterning of his sister's dress flattens out her form and threatens to merge her with the flowered wallpaper. The sister's awkwardness is emphasized in the way she bends down to fit into the picture. The tilted perspective and cramped space add to the feeling of discomfort. Every inch of the composition contributes to the mood.

Private moments of tension

In this, as in a number of his early works, we feel we are witnessing a private situation of psychological tension. These paintings speak to us because the lives they depict unfold much as ours do, with long spells of peaceful routine punctuated by flare-ups.

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