French painter Edouard Vuillard never married. He lived with his widowed mother, his self-proclaimed “muse,” until her death in 1928 when he was 60.
Foreshadowing Freud’s views on real family values, Vuillard’s interiors suggest the cluttered, conflicted inner worlds of their inhabitants.
Close-knit quarters become charged, theatrical sets in which psychological dramas unfold. “Madame Vuillard at Table” (1896-97), is as frontal and fraught as Giacometti’s frenzied portraits of his own mother. Vuillard was clearly a precedent.
The artist is the subject of a rich, beautiful and well-balanced retrospective at the Jewish Museum. Best known as a visionary painter of densely woven, domestic interiors, as “Edouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses, 1890-1940” bears out, he was also a master of portraiture, landscape, playbills, posters and the decorative mural. And he got better with age.
Vuillard’s preoccupation is often the uneasiness of human interaction, of things experienced and imagined yet unacknowledged, unsaid. Working somewhere between Dutch Realism and Existentialism, he expresses the tension between naturalism and claustrophobic family life, where binding relationships can also constrict.
If his fellow Symbolist and studio mate Pierre Bonnard turned up the heat, stretching fever-pitch color to ecstatic heights, Vuillard, a realist and introspective dreamer, preferred to let things simmer.
In his dual portrait of the brothers, entrepreneurs and collectors, “Henri and Marcel Kapferer in Their Dining Room” (1912), an extremely long telephone wire bisects the table. Separating the successful brothers (Henri founded Air France, while Marcel started Royal Dutch Shell) as clearly as a line drawn in the sand, it drops to the floor, unravels and snakes across the blood-red carpet like some living umbilical cord.
Intimate and well-paced, the Jewish Museum’s chronological exhibition is as elegant and satisfying as a fine meal. Early on, a gathering of theater programs, in turn festive and melancholy, are magical marriages of word and image. Letters, leaves, mouths and eyes interweave as accent and punctuation.
The exhibit proceeds into larger landscapes, murals and portraits. In “Madame Hessel Sitting in a Meadow in Normandy” (c. 1905), Vuillard’s naturalism invokes Constable. And in the nearly abstract “Twilight at Le Pouliguen” (1908), he is as broad, plainspoken and direct as Milton Avery.
Figures in Vuillard’s early paintings and lithographs are nearly consumed by the pictures’ advancing, Impressionistic fields of textiles and rose-patterned wallpaper. In many of his portraits, people darken and harden into near silhouette. They appear to carve out pockets of space in an attempt to anchor themselves within the flurry of their surroundings.
The interior “Woman in a Striped Dress” (1895) suggests a garden. Two women flower from out of the picture’s russet ground. The vibrant red and white stripes of the younger woman’s dress deepen the sense of furrowed field, yet also lend to her the anxiety of wiggling worms. The women’s heads are fused like twin blossoms on a single stem, but they are worlds apart.
Children have a special place in Vuillard. In the opulent “Claude Bernheim de Villers” (1905-6) the child is clearly articulated, the picture’s ballast, while the woman dissolves into spooky mist.
Yet it is in the last galleries devoted to work from the 1920s and ’30s that Vuillard’s genius and range -- his verisimilitude -- take flight.
In “Woman in an Interior” (c. 1935-38) his loose brushwork is worthy of Delacroix. And in “Luncheon at Les Clayes” (1935-38), the gleaming seated diners are as brilliant and translucent as glassware.
The gray-violet landscape “Garden in Winter with Peacock” is among the last pictures Vuillard painted before his death in 1940, just before the German occupation of Paris. According to the curators, its prescient “gloominess” and “gray tonalities” convey an “impending sense of tragedy.”
Far from gloomy, however, the large, gorgeous, twilit painting is inviting and romantic enough to step into. Vuillard modestly and somewhat disingenuously remarked, “I have never been anything but a spectator.”
Here, as elsewhere, he paints what he sees. Yet even in the landscape he was a painter of interiors as his perceptive eye, prophetic perhaps, penetrated to the world within.
“Edouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses, 1890-1940” runs through Sept. 23 at 1109 Fifth Ave. Information: +1-212-423-3200; http://www.thejewishmuseum.org.
(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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