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Everyday Symbolist

Èdouard Vuillard: Post-Impressionist Master (National Gallery of Art; Montreal Museum of Fine Arts)

Symbolism, an apotheosis of personal expression that swept through all the arts at the end of the nineteenth century, marked Europe’s final break with the classical humanism of the Renaissance. The struggles for romantic independence that had animated artists, writers, and musicians in France, Germany, and England for more than a hundred years emboldened the Symbolists to follow their sensations wherever they might lead. Their sense of freedom, defined in the poetry of Rimbaud, Verlaine, and Mallarm, flooded the visual arts, so that in the decades around 1900 Redon, Gauguin, Bonnard, and Vuillard were able to magnify their tiniest apprehensions until they took on an uncategorizable emblematic power. And these artists in turn helped to forge a new public for art, a public that rejected an earlier vision of painting and sculpture as instruction in favor of a new vision of art as seduction.

A century has come and gone since the Symbolist revolution, and I think it is safe to say that sophisticated audiences, when given a choice between learning and succumbing, will still elect to be seduced. With its impassioned struggles to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary, Symbolism remains a sensibility that is very close to our hearts. The Symbolist adventure stretches from the third quarter of the nineteenth century to the years between the two world wars, and it continues to dominate our experience in much the way that the achievements of Raphael and Dante dominated earlier centuries. Symbolism embraces the ecstatic distortions in Degas’s later pastels of dancers as well as the vast, almost bejeweled impressions of water lilies that Monet painted in the 1920s. It finds expression in the enveloping, quickening sonorities of Ravel and Mahler, in the condensed dramatic dance poems of the Ballets Russes, and in the atmospheric fictions of Virginia Woolf. Seurat’s pointillism has a Symbolist dimension, as does the color in Matisse’s Fauvism. The classicism of Mondrian or Stravinsky, which gives an ideal of order an almost mystically personal import, can be seen as an extension of Symbolist experience. And the aftershocks of Symbolism are felt deep into the twentieth century, in Nabokov’s crazily, craftily elaborate metaphors and in Balthus’s studies of young women gilded by the light that drifts through a nearby window.

The Symbolists re-adjusted all the predictable relationships between the sublimity of art and the ordinariness of life. And while the subtlety of their transformations—which are by turns playful, arresting, and disturbing—can still leave their art feeling difficult, their genius for turning vagrant thoughts and momentary perceptions into visual and aural extravaganzas has affected every area of the arts, high and low. To the extent that the contemporary audience is far more interested in floating meanings than in fixed meanings, it is possible to argue that Symbolist taste has become the taste of our time. By now we are aware that Symbolism’s ecstatic particularity can all too easily degenerate into middlebrow easy listening and easy looking. And yet there is nothing trivial about our desire to engage with artists as intimates rather than as exemplars. We still want to discover meanings and morals, but we now take it for granted that such revelations will frequently be buried, blurred, disguised. We take it for granted that we are going to feel before we think. We want to fall under the spell of art.

The paintings of Èdouard Vuillard, gathered together in a retrospective that has been at the National Gallery in Washington and now moves to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, are among the pinnacles of Symbolist experience, a melting together of lifestyle and artistic style that has a rapturous, once-upon-a-time power. Vuillard, who was born in 1868 and died in 1940, spans the entire Symbolist period. In his early years, often working on formats scarcely more than a foot high, he was at once a documentarian and a dreamer, summoning up the pattern-filled interiors in which he and his family and friends passed their days. Going through the early galleries of the Vuillard retrospective, looking at these incredibly luminous interiors, with their candy-box density, their chocolate and mocha and caramel colors, we are caught in a great tumble of sensations. These compositions that Vuillard did when he was not yet thirty are among the treasures of museums around the worldharbingers of abstraction that simultaneously look back to the interiors of de Hooch and Vermeer and define a romantic notion of bohemian-tinged bourgeois comfort that has been the epitome of chic from Vuillard’s time down to the shelter magazines of our own day.

If Vuillard’s name has never become as widely known as that of Bonnard, another Symbolist of the quotidian with whom Vuillard had a lifelong friendship, it is probably because Vuillard was inclined, especially after the turn of the century, to cultivate a subdued tonalism and a taste for descriptive detail that many came to regard as out of sync with the drift of modern art. At the very beginning of his career, working with Bonnard and Maurice Denis, Vuillard was a central figure among the group of artists who called themselves the Nabis (after the Hebrew word for prophet). They wanted to push the already intensified color of Post-Impressionism into nearly abstract effects, and in the standard histories of modern art it is as a Nabi that Vuillard is still primarily remembered. Although the Museum of Modern Art gave Vuillard a full retrospective in 1954, the extraordinary variety that the artist brings to his autumnal lights and shades has never been embraced in America as wholeheartedly as Bonnard’s sublimely idiosyncratic counterpoint of high-keyed color.

There may be nothing in Vuillard that can finally match the heights that Bonnard reached in such late masterpieces as the Studio With Mimosa and the cycle of paintings of his wife Marthe in her bath, works that were included in “Pierre Bonnard: Early and Late,” a fine retrospective that closed at the Phillips Collection in Washington on the very day that the Vuillard retrospective opened across town. And yet it is a mistake to regard Vuillard as a less daring Bonnard. The people who describe Vuillard that way often have only a dim understanding of what he actually accomplished. Many of his large paintings travel rarely if at all, since they were executed in distemper, a medium with a glue-based binder that cracks and flakes very easily and cannot withstand the wear and tear of a touring show. Vuillard was obviously attracted by the wonderful matte surfaces that he could achieve with distemper, somewhat like a fresco surface. Yet the delicacy of these paintings has meant that even when they are on view, they are generally exhibited behind a sheet of protective glass, which turns their complexly worked, delicate, almost sandy surfaces into slick tricks.

At the time of Vuillard’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, Fairfield Porter wrote that “we have not yet caught up with the extreme sophistication of his successes.” Nearly fifty years later, this is still true. What we can say is that the work of catching up with Vuillard has now truly begun. This retrospective, which also travels to Paris and London, was organized by Guy Cogeval, the director of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Cogeval is also responsible for the Vuillard catalogue raisonn, which appears this spring. While the presentation in Washington was not perfectespecially in some of the later galleries, the work was overhungall in all this was an impressively relaxed and lucid exhibition. The first time I saw the show, I was overwhelmed by the easygoing intensity of Vuillard’s effects, by his genius for slipping from strikingly close observation into a kind of fanciful speculation without losing the sureness of his painterly touch. Returning to take another look, I began to feel Vuillard’s reach, his nerve, a largeness of spirit, a critical sense that pushed him beyond the miniaturist’s gifts of his early years into the expansive decorative spirit of his work in the last years of the nineteenth century.

The largeness of Vuillard’s ambitions is one of the essential themes of this exhibition. In the decorative panels that he painted for the homes of adventuresome collectors as the nineteenth century was dying, Vuillard finds ways to project the slightest, most enigmatic shades of feeling on a very grand scale. Many of these multi-panel decorations, which depict moody interiors, dappled parks, crowded street scenes, and farmland vistas, were eventually dispersed: Vuillard’s patrons tended to change partners and domiciles and generally enjoyed turning their lives inside out. We know more about these works through the work of Gloria Groom, a curator at the Art Institute of Chicago who published the important Èdouard Vuillard: Painter-Decorator in 1993, and organized “Beyond the Easel: Decorative Painting by Bonnard, Vuillard, Denis, and Roussel, 1890-1930” in Chicago and New York a few years ago. Through the work of Groom and now Cogeval, museumgoers are having extraordinary opportunities to see some of these unusual decorative cycles, with their strangely elongated formats and their initially confusing but ultimately exhilarating integration of monumental ambition and decentralized, fractured subject matter.

The secret of Vuillard’s success in these large decorative ensembles may be that he refuses to take command of them all at once. He regards the decorative impulse as essentially additive, incremental; he has obviously studied medieval tapestries, eighteenth-century French decorative arts, and classical Japanese screen painting. He wanders through a space, mastering it as he goes. The result, in The Public Gardens (1894), The Album (1895), Île-de-France Landscape (1899), and Five-Panel Screen for Miss Marguerite Chapin; Place Vintimille (1911), is a meandering resplendence. In The Public Gardens, with its pale tones, the mood is one of mild grandeur. Vuillard treats each clutch of children with the amused avidity that Watteau, in the decorative panels that he completed early in his career, devoted to a curlicue or a swag. He gives us pageantry without brassiness. In The Public Gardens, he is tickled by things: a child’s way of bending over to play, a woman’s hat, the shadow cast by a tree. He is certainly interested in the painting of everyday life, but he may be even more interested in celebrating his own everyday visual fecundity.

Although one of the greatest decorative cycles devoted to Parisian home life, The Vaquez Panels: Figures in an Interior (1896), did not come to Washington, the show did contain the magnificent Album, also known as Five Panels for Thadée Natanson, in which Vuillard saturates the full-to-the-brim apartments of fin-de- siècle Paris with broodingly intense ruby and amethyst tonalities. There is something almost shockingly slowmoving about these luxuriant scenes, in which the beautiful women and the great bouquets of flowers, picked out in creamy, pearly whites, have an obsessional power. They are spectral visions of a hothouse world. The effect is reminiscent of the layered magic of some eighteenth-century Japanese kimonos, where a surface is first elaborately batiked in full color and then adumbrated with embroidering, so that certain elements in the design take on a redoubled importance. The result, in Vuillard’s paintings as in the Japanese textiles, is a startling luxuriousness. And yet in Vuillard’s Album there is none of the preening self-consciousness that mars so much of the Art Nouveau taste of late nineteenth-century Europe. Vuillard is exacting about his indulgences; there is an unflagging precision to his velvety excess.

Vuillard, who never married, counted among his intimates some of the most attractive and adventuresome women of the day, including Misia Natanson, the wife of Thade Natanson, who was editor of La Revue Blanche, and Lucy Hessel, the wife of Jos Hessel, an art dealer who represented Vuillard. Misia is the princess at the center of the fairy tale that is Vuillard’s art, a fairy tale in which self-knowledge can sometimes seem to be indistinguishable from the knowledge of beauty. This woman, with her soft, angelic face, was still a teenager when she married Thadée and presided over the high bohemian world that centered around La Revue Blanche, a magazine that was published throughout the 1890s and that counted among its contributors Mallarmé, Gide, Proust, and Toulouse-Lautrec. Misia was a gifted pianist, and she was the only woman present when Debussy gave the first piano presentation of Pelléas and Mélisande, singing all the parts himself. She was painted by Bonnard, Vuillard, Toulouse- Lautrec, and Renoir (who begged her to show him more of her breasts, a request that she later regretted having refused). When Vuillard painted her, the result was often not so much a portrait as a painted prose poem, with Misia’s face obscured so that the outline of her body might become an image of pure vitality. Among Vuillard’s photographs are several of a summer house that Misia and Thadée shared, and you can feel in its whitewashed walls and its rustic furniture and its elegant spaces one of those re-definitions of chic that were second nature to these people.

It is easy to forget how young Misia and Thadée and their friends were around the turn of the century, mostly in their twenties and thirties. They have the watchfulness of adolescents, lapping up experiences and not quite knowing where sensualism ends and indolence begins. Vuillard gives their luxurious lives a precise psychological value, and who can doubt that his subjects, the people who paid his bills, knew exactly what he was doing? These spoiled bohemians had known him first as the chronicler of his mother’s hard labors as a seamstress, and they would continue to support him later on, when he created portraits with a steely precision that perfectly matched the disabused spirits of the 1930s. Vuillard’s art may be all surfaces, but he knows how to penetrate to the surfaces beneath the surfaces. In his sensitive writing in the exhibition catalogue, Cogeval skillfully points out how the tensions between Vuillard’s sister Marie and his good friend Ker Xavier Roussel, a notorious womanizer who married Marie and caused her considerable pain, are limned in the early paintings. In Vuillard’s later work there is sometimes a feeling that the lights have been turned up a little brighter; it’s as if everybody has finally entered the workaday world.

The sensousness of daily life would always be Vuillard’s favorite subject, but for museumgoers who are enthralled by his way of playing with the fabric of appearances, the eventual drift of his work toward an increasingly plainspoken naturalism can be disturbing. Some have argued that as Vuillard’s fame grew and he accepted commissions from people whom he did not know especially well, he could not prevent his work from becoming regularized and programmatic. But we should not be too quick to conclude that Vuillard is letting us off lazily in these later works, in which he insists on bringing each detail to a consistently high level of finish. Certainly the portrait of Jeanne Lanvin, the legendary couturier, painted in 1933, is an awesome achievement. This extraordinarily complex pictorial construction deserves to be counted as one of the great gambles of mid-twentieth-century art. Vuillard has painted Lanvin at work in her sleek Art Deco office, seated behind a huge black lacquer desk. The orchestration here of blacks and grays and greens is mild yet decisive. And the hand of a master is evident in the contrast that Vuillard draws between the shimmering appointments of the luxurious office—the writing implements at the ready, the chrome hardware, a sculpture in a glass case—and the delicate articulation of Lanvin’s face. There is an aureole of authority around this middle-aged woman, whose wide-awake eyes and arched eyebrows form the lyric center of a tough-minded composition.

The impersonality in Vuillard’s later work is a conscious choice. He is experimenting with the possibility that his Symbolist magic can be generated through the very intensity of his visual anecdotes. While the crazily blooming color in Bonnard’s later canvases suggests the detachment of feeling from representation in the poetry of Mallarmé, the pile-up of detail in Vuillard’s later paintings parallels the effects in Henry James’s final novels, where impressions are so thoroughly worked up that experience thickens, becoming sometimes almost static. Many readers have found in the saturated atmospheres of The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl not the freedom of sensation that James surely meant to suggest but something closer to a loss of free will. That is a risk you take when you succumb to the immensity of sensory experience. A late Vuillard confronts us with a related dilemma. Vuillard risks telling us too much; like James, he risks an ecstatic bafflement. Cogeval describes Vuillard’s late paintings as neoclassical in spirit, but they are probably better understood as a re-examination of nineteenth-century naturalism in the light of Symbolist experience—as a celebration of the strangeness of naturalism itself.

In his late work Vuillard is still exploring some of his earliest themes. And in the fascinating suite of paintings devoted to the galleries of the Louvre that he painted between 1921 and 1922, even as he is documenting the look of certain galleries in the great museum after World War I, he is also giving us a climactic reflection on the teasing relationships between art and life that had preoccupied him since the 1890s. Where once Vuillard had suggested that the everyday life of Paris might have some of the heraldic richness of medieval decoration or some of the aristocratic delicacy of an eighteenth-century Parisian boudoir, he now takes us into the galleries of the Louvre and finds those lost medieval and rococo worlds amid the ordinary experience of museumgoing. Working for a Swiss industrialist, Vuillard devoted six panels to the theme of the museum and the museumgoer. He dedicated large canvases to rooms full of French art of the Middle Ages and the eighteenth century and to Greek sculpture and ceramics. There are also two smaller panels, representing the mantles in Vuillard’s own studio, piled with Japanese prints, a cast of the Venus de Milo, and other classical objects; these elongated horizontal compositions suggest the kind of personal museum that artists collect in their workrooms.

The retrospective includes the two small panels, and The Salle des Cariatides, dominated by a huge stone urn, and The Salle La Caze, with paintings by Chardin, Watteau, and Largillire hanging on the walls. Vuillard’s magnificent canvases, in which delicately observed museumgoers are dwarfed by the masterworks that fill the galleries of the Louvre, are unlike anything else in modern art: what he has done is to turn the treasures of a great museum into the protagonists in his scenes from contemporary life. While Vuillard was working on these paintings, he found himself thinking about Degas’s studies of Mary Cassatt in the Louvre, and there is certainly a tradition of painting art- filled environments, going back to Watteau’s Shopsign and still earlier. At the same time, Vuillard’s Louvre proves to be an utterly contemporary museum, in that it is a public space in which magically private experiences can take place. These paintings provoke large philosophical questions, the kinds of questions that Adorno raised in his famous essay “Valry Proust Museum,” in which he juxtaposed Valry’s sense of the Louvre as all “cold confusion” with Proust’s description of “the exhilarating happiness that can be had only in the museum, where the rooms, in their sober abstinence from all decorative detail, symbolize the inner spaces into which the artist withdraws to create the work.” In Vuillard’s Louvre cycle, the art on the walls becomes a magnification of the appetites and the ambitions of the men and women who fill the gallery, some of whom are copying the paintings, some of whom are merely there to look.

The Salle La Caze, one of Vuillard’s most daring compositions, is dominated by the vast gallery wall, a dusky red surface hung with masterworks, a wall that Vuillard has angled a bit back from the plane of the canvas so as to create a narrow pocket of air—the air that the museumgoer breathes. If the Louvre series can be interpreted as an allegory of the history of the arts, covering painting, sculpture, and the decorative arts and the classical, medieval, and modern periods, then The Salle La Caze is the canvas in which we confront painting, the most modern of the arts. By focusing on a wall that includes Chardin’s Jar of Olives and Watteau’s Nymph and Satyr, Vuillard is saluting the two eighteenth-century painters who rejected the essential artistic assumptions of their own century, when the academic authorities believed that art must be instruction, and thereby inaugurated the modern vision of art as sublime seduction.

Both Chardin and Watteau prefigure the glorious meltdowns of Symbolism, Watteau in his high-stakes transformation of figure composition into the dream- play of the fête champêtre, Chardin in the earth-shattering expectations that he brings to representation itself. And once we have recognized the place that Watteau and Chardin hold in the pre-history of Symbolism, The Salle La Caze turns out to be not so much an evocation of an ordinary day at the Louvre as a Symbolist exposition of the artistic entanglements without which Vuillard surely felt that life was not worth living. Here his subject is not so much luxury as necessity—the necessity of art, which for the Symbolist becomes life’s ultimate justification. Vuillard is the everyday Symbolist—the man who knows how to pull startling epiphanies out of familiar experiences. When he takes the Louvre as his subject, Vuillard is saluting a place where the miracles of art and the everydayness of life are wonderfully mingled. A realist may be able to describe a museumgoer’s passionate engagement with the art of the past, but only a Symbolist, Vuillard wants to remind us, can turn these close encounters into mystical unions.

This article originally ran in the March 5, 2003 issue of the magazine.