At the end of the Modernist era it became increasingly taboo to interpret an artist’s work in relation to his or her biography. Only the formal qualities of a piece were deemed relevant, with information about the artist’s life being mere gossip. The irony of course is that there are now numerous biographies and memoirs of those days. Even Clement Greenberg, the most prominent formalist critic, has been the subject of at least two full-scale biographies.
One sees the futility of trying to interpret art as if it were somehow separate from its creator. It’s almost commonsensical that the more we know about an artist’s life the better we understand their work.
When studying a famous artist I’ve always found nothing more illuminating than a good biography. Some artists lend themselves to the process, none more so than Pablo Picasso, who was a global celebrity. His friend and rival, Henri Matisse, was so private that no biography existed until Hilary Spurling’s volumes of 1998-2005. There is still no biography of Pierre Bonnard, arguably the most important modern French painter after Matisse.
Before the coronavirus lockdown Bonnard was set to be the subject of the National Gallery of Victoria’s winter blockbuster. There’ll need to be some rearrangement of dates but hopefully we’ll still get to see the exhibition. It might be thought that Bonnard, who was even more reclusive than Matisse, would provide scant material for a biographer, but as Julia Frey has demonstrated in her new book on Édouard Vuillard (1868-1940), with an artist a little biographical knowledge unlocks a trove of insights that may be found in the work itself.
Frey, who published an outstanding life of Toulouse-Lautrec in 1998, has had to find a different approach to write about the elusive Vuillard, best known for interior scenes of people in a room engaged in their own private preoccupations. These pictures make us feel there is something going on, but it’s never obvious what that may be. One of my most memorable museum experiences was a Vuillard show at the Brooklyn Museum in 1990, in company with the American painter, Robert Natkin. We spent hours absorbed in these puzzling works.
Venus Betrayed: The Private World of Édouard Vuillard, is not strictly a biography but a thematic study of the artist’s work from a biographical standpoint. What we get is a kind of biography-in-disguise, in which the events of Vuillard’s life are not presented chronologically but in relation to friends and family, and to recurrent motifs and obsessions.
There is a chapter on the artist’s mother, with whom he lived until her death at the age of 87 in 1928. There is a chapter on Ker Xavier Roussel, the feckless friend and fellow artist who married Vuillard’s sister, Mimi. There’s a chapter on Misia Natanson (later Misia Sert), who served as muse and unrequited love objet; and one on the artist’s long-term mistress, Lucie Hessel.
Frey looks at Vuillard’s habit of painting dinner tables devoid of food, at his reluctance to paint men, and the way he might use a picture to express resentment or settle a score. The thematic approach means that chapters overlap, with certain events or anecdotes recurring like motifs in a piece of music. Each recurrence adds emphasis and reveals more of Vuillard’s complexities.
It adds up to an unusually searching examination of an artist based on the evidence of his works and his private journals. It’s a portrait of a double life.
To some extent we all lead such dual lives. We have our public and private selves, our masks and secrets, our manias and phobias, but for Vuillard each of these dualties was played out in his work.
On one hand we have the dutiful son, hypersensitive and timid, easily manipulated, worried about giving offence. On the other, Vuillard the night crawler, who spends the small hours of the morning stalking prostitutes in the back streets of Paris; or the Vuillard who falls in love with one married woman after another. He bitterly resents the wealthy people who buy his paintings and commission portraits but is happy to accept their hospitality. He is devoted to his family but willing to depict them in the most unflattering manner, turning personal traumas into large decorative panels for his clients’ mansions.
Throughout his life Vuillard is subject to a “paralysing ambivalence” in his relations with his family, his clients, and his dealers. He feels that the Bernheim brothers are cheating him, but he sticks with the gallery because he values their friendship. He took his revenge in a series of family portraits that made the Bernheims look cold and cynical. For their part, the dealers took no notice. It’s interesting that in La loge (1908), Bonnard would paint the Bernheims and their wives at the opera in such as manner that the brothers virtually disappear.
Vuillard was secretive by nature but when one knows what to look for, his images have a confessional aspect. Frey deduces an affair with one of the poor seamstresses who worked for his mother, based mainly on hints in his journal, and a painting called The Kiss (1890-91). The dysfunctional marrage of Mimi and Ker is recorded in painstaking detail, as are the tensions between Mimi and Maman.
Infatuated with the flamboyant Misia Natanson, Vuillard felt awkward because of his friendship with her husband, Thadée. He was wracked wth jealousy when she seemed to pay more attention to his artist friend, Félix Valloton, and devastated when she started an affair with the writer, Romain Coolus.
His own affair with the willful Lucie Hessel enjoyed the complicity of her art dealer husband, who seemed to see this as a way of keeping Vuillard on the books. Brought up in a household of women, still living with his mother, Vuillard had strong sensual instincts, but never considered getting married or starting a family of his own.
There is a gulf between the elaborate portraits that made Vuillard’s reputation in later life and his more experimental work, but he put an unusual amount of himself into every piece. Indeed, the difficulties he experienced in finishing some portraits reflect the agony of being unable to view an unsympathetic sitter through the lens of his private preoccupations – artistic and psychological. Those heavily decorated interiors which remain his most engaging works are both beautiful and claustrophobic, permeated with unspoken conflicts and tensions. This much is obvious to anyone who takes the time to look, but if asked to consider these pictures only in terms of colour or composition we might never know what secrets they contain or why they strike so many chords in our own imaginings.
The Private World of Édouard Vuillard
By Julia Frey
Reaktion, London, 424pp
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 9 May, 2020