Book Review: The Private World of Édouard Vuillard

Édouard Vuillard, Octagonal Self-portrait (ca. 1890)

Venus Betrayed: The Private World of Édouard Vuillard

By Julia Frey

Published by Reaktion Books

By JOSEPH NECHVATAL, February 2021

I don’t think there could be a better newish art book to obsess over during the pandemic home confinement period than Julia Frey’s Venus Betrayed: The Private World of Édouard Vuillard: a thematic biography of French painter Édouard Vuillard (1868–1940) chocked full of large color reproductions. Beginning with his Neo-Impressionist paintings, some, like Grandmother at the Kitchen Sink (1890) ~ a powerful Pointillist work that verges on Op Art ~ create miasmas of sensuous luxury that transforms the dingy, cramped, interior dwelling-work space Vuillard endured as young artist into something lavish and glorious and avuncular. Such streaks of sybaritic paganism seem a running thread throughout Vuillard’s early work (often painted on cardboard), like The Door Ajar (1891) ~ a languorous and majestic and gorgeous ocean of broken yellow. That is why his early work appeals to my aesthetic taste in painting ~ formed during the post-punk period that romanticized acts of dinginess exploding into ecstatic release.

Grandmother at the Kitchen Sink (1890)

The Door Ajar (1891)

Like Grandmother at the Kitchen Sink, most of Vuillard’s best paintings indistinctly depict women at work in his hampered home, for after the death of his father (when the artist was 15) and with the departure of an older brother, impoverished Vuillard was the sole male cohabitating a petite Paris apartment with his grandmother, mother, and older sister: all of whom worked in the family corset-making business. The same small space was also periodically filled with their hired teenage seamstresses and bustling lady customers, who Vuillard (a discrete libertine) would often observe déshabillée, as the screen behind which customers undressed also concealed Vuillard’s bed. For this shy, red haired, heterosexual young painter; such capacitating confines ~ a painters’ pensive prison ~ enforced an intimacy with femininity that fueled his peekaboo compositions, such as Madame Vuillard Fixing Her Hair (ca. 1895) and The Vine-pattern Dress (1891).

Madame Vuillard Fixing Her Hair (ca. 1895)

The Vine-pattern Dress (1891) 

The book being thematically written, I liked that biographical topics in different chapters overlap like floating layers of fabric, so that anecdotes recur like motifs in music. These whooshing rhythms reveal insights into Vuillard’s erotic complexities that Frey recounts based on his unpublished private journals. Frey’s focus on Vuillard’s sex life of furtive fantasies ~ saturated in family femininity and the fashionable sensuality of the corset ~ suggest a repressed Oedipal fixation that only may flourish in the ambiguity of the paintings. Of course there is more to it than that. Vuillard’s sense of repressed erotic-spatial restriction was also nourished by his fascination with Japanese prints and the paintings of Paul Gauguin. Without Gauguin and Japan, Vuillard may have become merely a doyen of painted dream-kitsch. As it is, his flattened, compressed, wiggling spaces feel perfectly poignant.

With 220 lush, sensually provocative (and perverse) color plates, there is plenty to luxuriate starved and strained sensibilities within this rather idiosyncratic book while still learning the Freudian details about Vuillard’s bifurcated early life. Through Vuillard’s journals, sketches and copious photographs (which he also used in his cropped-arranged figurative compositions) Frey reveals a creature half passive home body (quietly living with mother and sister) half all-night walking whoring carouser. 

Though his later, better drawn, hence clearer paintings ~ made outside of his restrictive but actively perfumed space ~ can be overly decorative and hence vaguely vapid, during the fin de siècle (Vuillard’s Pointillist-Nabi-Fauve period) he radically collapsed figure and ground into color fields of sensual equanimity. Through their saturated sensory abundance, we can feel the fluidity of female identities as they merge with their context into home-human, femme-fleur, woman-as-flowery-wallpaper hybridizations set mercurially drifting within a sea of pretty pandemonium.

Young Girl with Hand on Doorknob (1891)

But Vuillard’s story is also a story of painting transfigured by photographic technology. In a painting like Young Girl with Hand on Doorknob (1891), Vuillard suggests, through painting an ambiguous body language that thwarts narrative, humble corporality captured in the act of melting into temporal acts of fluidity. By rejecting to disambiguate this depicted double act of opening/closing, Vuillard leaves open the possibility of sustaining, for the viewer, time to think choice through. This feels very familiar now, during a time when everything is contagious; including moods of fear, frustration, grumpiness, compassion, empathy and hope. Such contagiousness is agonizingly apparent in Vuillard’s painting of his sister Mimi in The Mumps (1892).

The Mumps (1892)

Dinnertime (ca. 1889)

Though finally securing for the reader Vuillard’s secretive sex drives, I think Frey may have taken too much time getting there, first dissecting Vuillard’s dark symbolist painting Dinnertime (ca. 1889). Though it possesses the burlesque beauty of psychological turmoil ~ see the shadowy faces reminiscent of James Ensor’s paintings ~ Dinnertime cannot hold a candle to Vuillard’s productive prurient period of painting which those delighting dabs of color. As with works like The Mumps, bodies depart darkness and begin to blend and bend into color patterns ~ thus exciting vanguard mental activity of the occult imagination. Clearly Vuillard’s best paintings were done during this period when his art bathed in the tension between daytime stupefaction and vie bohème exhilaration. Within this duplicitous atmosphere, the flux of his temporal painterly values receives the glow of melancholy grandeur. 

As hinted at above, at home Vuillard was a reticent and timid man. Out at night (often all night), he became a skirt chasing social climbing leftist. But besides a scavenged taste for anarchism and amiable whores, Vuillard had two steady lovers: Misia Natanson and Lucie Hessel. Both were also other men’s wives and both circulated among Vuillard’s circle of fascinating friends that included Stéphane Mallarmé, Alfred Jarry, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Ker-Xavier Roussel, Felix Fénéon, Pierre Bonnard, Felix Vallotton, other Nabi painters. This while his mother, who he painted hundreds of times, kept clean the relaxed house for her bachelor boy, even cooking for him and his more fiendish friends. Vuillard could paint because his mother offered him the domestic tranquility that he never found among his tempestuous friends or the illicit love of his mercurial mistresses. 

Woman in Blue with a Child (1899)

The Seamstress with Chiffons (1893)

The Nurse (1894)

With transcendent lapidary imagery that interlocks figure and ground, as in Woman in Blue with a Child (1899), The Seamstress with Chiffons (1893) and The Nurse (1894) (not reproduced in the book, but a doozy), Vuillard gets the eye rhapsodically wriggling on a poetic tripod. With them, Vuillard created a model of visual deviance defined and responded to in terms of the symbolic criteria of legitimacy and illegitimacy. They can seem to vibrates in the heat of the presence of passion. Even cooler viewers must address them, rather than be addressed by them. The Nurse pulverizes vision into joyful visual noise, releasing the sense of becoming that is latent within healing life. That makes The Nurse not only a painted sign-object, but also an intersubjective mode of connective communication. 

Now that abstraction has become a form of passive pastoralism, Vuillard should have an energetic historical reality in the minds of those who value the thought of a post-pandemic culture. I think that The Private World of Édouard Vuillard will softly touch people who are in tune with this mode of silky associative thinking. Those that yearn to be released from the corset of mental restrictions. WM

Joseph Nechvatal

Joseph Nechvatal is an artist whose computer-robotic assisted paintings and computer software animations are shown regularly in galleries and museums throughout the world. In 2011 his book Immersion Into Noise was published by the University of Michigan Library's Scholarly Publishing Office in conjunction with the Open Humanities Press. He exhibited in Noise, a show based on his book, as part of the Venice Biennale 55, and is artistic director of the Minóy Punctum Book/CD project.

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