I often find myself coming back to visit this artist. Way back when I wrote the first piece on Vuillard I was still fumbling with how to approach the blog. I had not learned how to go find the better prints of things so that the pictures could be better studied. I relied on a few book plates which, frankly, weren’t very good. Today, with the tools provided by the Google Art Project and with lovely sites like Olga’s Gallery it is much easier to find good representations of artists from this period.
Vuillard was one of Les Nabis, which means “the prophets” in both Arabic and Hebrew. In terms of PR they were a pitiful group in that most folks didn’t even know they had formed until they were nearly broken up. In the case of Vuillard, it would have been no real stretch to imagine much of his work fitting in quite naturally with some of the better known, later movements like the Fauvists. Note the breathtaking freedom of color and composition in the Boulevard of Batignolles, following.
But the real fact is that he seemed to be at home in a great many styles over the course of his life. Here is a case in point from 1935.
The more I study him the more I respect him. He really had an uncanny way of rendering character and story. He is the kind of artist that makes the job of writing easy, for his work invariably sets your mind to buzzing. Just as you cannot help but know the characters in the Green Diner, above, complete with all those familiar family dynamics which ring so truly and conjure so many tales of play and conflict round the roast, so too, must you wonder at the mysterious woman in the picture which follows, who is turning away to hide her face. Her posture is not the posture of one who is frightened but rather suggests someone who is fighting to keep herself together. The question for us isn’t how the colors are used or how to define the composition of form or figure, but rather how does he communicate so thoroughly with so little? More and more, this is what I seek in art: not the glibness of the over-told, shiny, glittery, formulaic, mechanistic, empty bilge that pretends to sensitivity, but rather the playful implications of a canted, cat-like head at the dinner table or the implied struggle in an averted gaze, the lonely despair in a teacup centered just so, the suggestion of a complete and complex life in the rendering of a single, perfect moment.
But do I give him too much credit? Isn’t this what enthusiasts do? We tend to overstate our case. Is there really so much difference between this guy and the next guy? It’s just a club, isn’t it? Everybody gets together whithin their little geeky niche and decides on behalf of the eloi who is good and who is bad. Isn’t that the real truth? Perhaps it is a little bit. Lord knows there are many cases of critical love that I simply do not understand, but you will never hear about them from me. I do not have time to waste denigrating someone’s work that others may love.
Life, people. Can you throw a life down in two dimensions? That will always be the highest bar. Our tastes may differ on who does or does not meet that criterion, but I think most of us agree that art which lives, art which has—like the old Bugles commercial says—love, truth, beauty, corn, and a little salt, that’s the stuff that hangs on God’s walls.
Does Vuillard meet this standard? Here is a piece of his that probably took him less time than it takes the Starbucks guy to make your coffee. Is this lady alive? I don’t know, but she takes my breath away.