“Edouard Vuillard”

At the National Gallery of Art to April 20

Around my household, some movies get recommended as “dish-and-drape” pictures. These range from the maudlin piece of trash whose set dressing is its only redeeming feature (Peter’s Friends) to the artfully conceived succès d’estime in which household décor operates as a thematic intensifier (Far From Heaven). Then there’s the non-D&D flick that has memorable D&D moments (Apollo 13, whose living-room scenes document the period fancy for humongous fireplace bellows).

The thoroughgoing dish-and-drape picture is almost always a talky, housebound thing, filled with tense conversations and tenser silences that allow you to ogle the couch. But even in the best of them, two problems remain: The camera is always looking away when you don’t want it to, and the actors are constantly moving around, blocking the view. Applying the necessary correctives in a spring 2000 feature titled “Please Leave the Room,” arch shelter mag Nest started with masterworks of painting, not cinema, then edited the people out of them. Van Eyck’s Arnolfini marriage portrait was stripped of the happy couple; Campin’s Annunciation lacked both Virgin and angel. In the caption to the Degas interior known as The Rape, we were told that “[t]he chief personage of this humble domestic drama is surely the round-topped pedestal table with tripod base, on which is displayed a wooden sewing box lined in velvet, like those once carried by traveling seamstresses and milliners.”

Nest’s conceptually elegant solution, to remove vertical slices wherever skin intrudes and slap the remaining strips together, unfortunately produces rather inelegant pictures. It’s a little counterproductive, too. Substantially less of the upholstered fumed-oak footstool is visible in the rearranged Arrangement in Grey and Black than when Whistler’s mother sat unchopped. But elegance wasn’t the aim, of course: Nest editor Joseph Holtzman was delivering a polemic on behalf of those souls who are, he believes, genetically destined for the decorative life. It wouldn’t have done for him to start with uninhabited interiors; such pictures are almost always considered minor to their populated kin. His object was to claim high art for visually literate viewers who have less of an eye for people than for things.

It was necessary for Holtzman to do violence to images normally not thought of as decorative, because people are inclined to look right past his argument when it’s integrated into the work itself, even when the art in question is by as esteemed a figure as postimpressionist painter Edouard Vuillard, the subject of a retrospective now running at the National Gallery of Art.

The standard approach to Vuillard’s signature interiors of the Nabi 1890s, his first and best full decade, is to treat them as pieces of domestic theater. With virtually an entire room of the exhibition devoted to designs for theatrical ephemera and the painter’s tendency to cast and stage-manage his home life well documented—he notoriously fixed up a philandering young pal with his spinster sister Marie—it’s a defensible line. But why, I asked myself on my second visit, was I always looking past Vuillard’s people to the décor that was pushing them around? Why were my eyes sliding from their dunnish faces to their dazzling outfits? Why did I often undercount the number of actors, failing to read bodily form in the more abstracted of them?

The natural inclination when contemplating 1893’s Interior With Worktable, in which Kerr-Xavier Roussel pops his head into the workroom to put the mash on Marie, disrupting the decoration and interposing himself between her and her mother, is to congratulate her brother for the spiffy mise-en-scène. But I began to suspect that to paint Vuillard as a kind of visual playwright is to misplace his loyalties. It would be a peculiar auteur indeed who intended for his principal players to be upstaged by the scenery. Theatrical, yes, but Vuillard was more costumer and set designer than dramatist or director—yet he was completely unwilling to settle for anything less than pre-title billing. In cinematic terms, a Vuillard painting would be something like “An Edith Head Film” or “A Lyle Wheeler Film.” In other words, a dish-and-drape picture conceived primarily as such.

When chief exhibition curator and catalog essayist Guy Cogeval refers to the Symbolist dramas of the 1890s, note that he isn’t pitching Vuillard as a painterly Symbolist in the manner of Redon or Moreau, but as a visual counterpart to dramatic Symbolists such as Ibsen and Maeterlinck. Actually, the link to both types of Symbolism is strong in the crepuscular Dinnertime (c. 1889), in which the artist and his family are posed and lit as if preparing for some dark rite. But the heavy-handedness of this youthful experiment doesn’t really suit Vuillard. The more significant piece in the show’s opening gallery is the tiny Grandmother at the Sink (c. 1890). With a blizzard of deep rose and salmon-orange dots all but obscuring Mme Michaud and pasting her to the similarly bespeckled background, it looks like a pointillist oil sketch ablaze with the pox.

The idea of decoration as disfigurement, or even disease, is advanced in another funny little picture. The Mumps (c. 1892) depicts a woman, likely Marie, dressed in dark solids, turned away from us and passing between rooms, her face bound—and so concealed—by a dotted band of cloth. The bandage’s patterning links it to several vertical bands that organize the space around her according to the designs of nearby stretches of wallpaper.

Vuillard was accustomed to the idea of women transforming and being transformed by color and pattern. He grew up surrounded by his mother’s dressmaking business, and he never saw reason to leave—as big a mama’s boy as Proust, he would live with Mother until her death in 1928, when the painter was 60. If he was comfortable among the small company of his family and friends, he was obsessive with respect to their surroundings. When Marie was courted, he made it an occasion to admire her dress—and the wallpaper. When she made ready the marriage chamber, Little Brother redirected us from her blithe expression to her orange blouse, and from there to the golden folding screen, the red bedspread, and the patterns of the carpet, the upholstery—and the wallpaper. Even after her fortunes were upended by miscarriage and her husband’s wholly predictable infidelity, there was—my God, what gorgeous floral wallpaper!

Vuillard was not being callous here—or not only. He couldn’t help himself. He was what Holtzman would term a “room freak.” Not content, as so many fin de siècle painters were, to craft decorative schemes to fit narrative formulas so that the standard hierarchies were observed, Vuillard made decorative paintings that took as their subject matter the collisions and combinations of the actual decorations of the physical spaces he inhabited. It just took him a little while to admit fully what he was doing. But taboos are like that.

By 1895, when he painted the five decorations for Thadée and Misia Natanson known as The Album, Vuillard had come clean. Unified by a severely restricted and very tasteful color scheme of russet, sage, and taupe, the panels abound with mottled floral patterns allowed to run riot. Like many of Vuillard’s ’90s pictures, they are much more thinly painted than they first appear, with patches of bare canvas used as a core component of the design, emphasizing the works’ status as decorated surfaces rather than illusionistic windows. The overall density of the patterning causes the depicted spaces to push forward, collapsing against the picture plane. Floral clouds halo some sitters and crowd others. In The Dressing Table, one woman is nearly obliterated by a particularly robust arrangement. The head of the central figure in The Stoneware Pot is translucent, causing little interruption of the floral pattern behind her.

If there was a villain in Vuillard’s career, it was photography. He took up the Kodak in the late ’90s, and within a few years, its habitual use appears to have conventionalized the spaces of his paintings. In only a couple of the dozens of photographs on display is there any real contest between depiction and decoration, foreground and background, sitter and setting, and such conflicts also passed from Vuillard’s painting. He still produced decorative suites of great brilliance, in particular the National Gallery’s own Five-Panel Screen for Miss Marguerite Chapin: Place Vintimille (1911). But that work’s spaces are distanced and harmonious, even when cut into strips, rather than dizzying and intimate. Safely a master, Vuillard lost his audacity.

Though Vuillard started painting portraits in 1905 and such works would come to dominate the increasingly less adventuresome output of the last half of his life, he denied it: “I don’t paint portraits, I paint people in their homes.” Spoken like a true room freak, of course, and he’s actually right in a way. Vuillard’s most appealing late works win you over with their intimations that behind the stuffy façade of the uninspired establishment portraitist, whose pictures are structured like painted photographs, still lurked the decorative contrarian. Not only is The “Voiles de Gênes” Boudoir (1931) not named for the woman it ostensibly portrays, the wife of a perfume magnate, but it doesn’t even appear to want her around: The whole scene is glazed with a fulsome electric light that appears to have been squeezed from a Tropicana rose; it eats at Mme Fernand Javal like candied acid.

It would be going too far, however, to credit this or any of the other late commissions with satirical intent, or to find Vuillard’s redemption in what, regardless of the flickering of the old firebrand deep within them, is still a pretty wretched bunch of paintings. Yet this kind of revisionism is exactly what Cogeval rather strenuously attempts, going so far in his struggle against the conventional wisdom as to declare, “Vuillard emerges as a forerunner of portraitists like Alberto Giacometti, Lucian Freud—even Francis Bacon, in whose work the face draws its significance from its own corruption.”

But sometimes the conventional wisdom is right, and it won’t be shifted by what must be judged not-quite-disinterested scholarship. (Cogeval writes of completion of the forthcoming catalogue raisonné as a “task confided to me in 1996, by Antoine and Colette Salomon, heirs of Vuillard, and the great and regretted Daniel Wildenstein.”) Late Vuillard gets in on the coattails of early Vuillard, and as a comparison to late Bonnard. It’s inconceivable that an artist whose output consisted solely of paintings of the caliber of Vuillard’s late portraits would hang in the National Gallery at all.

Cogeval reserves his most vehement hand-waving and table-pounding for his discussion of 1931’s Countess Anna de Noailles, which depicts the ailing writer in her bed. Drawing some of his steam from a later version of the portrait not in the exhibition, he refers to the one that is as an “incredible character assassination,” writing, “Vuillard spares no detail of the ravaged face

of this aristocratic drug addict…” It’s an odd claim: Sparing details when it came to faces, many of which are among the least resolved passages of his paintings, was something Vuillard did throughout his career. And although some of the late portraits do offer tight features, de Noailles’ are rather indistinct. Vuillard went so far as to paint her exposed flesh to blend in with the background, darkening her face to match the headboard that looms behind her like a headstone that begs to be transplanted, and pinking up her hands and left forearm to match the coverlet, nudging her out of the way.

When he was on his own way down, Oscar Wilde famously remarked that he was locked in mortal combat with the décor of his Paris sickroom: “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go.” It’s a good thing Vuillard wasn’t asked to sit a deathbed watch. Just as in the case of the countess, he’d have rooted for the wallpaper. CP