Vuillard & Bonnard
by HILTON KRAMER
The career of Edouard Vuillard evokes for us today a world almost as remote from the tensions and pressures of contemporary life as the world of Fragonard. It is a world in which the cultivated bourgeoisie is still secure in its privileges and taste — a world in which art, money, comfort, talent, and new ideas exist in an untroubled harmony, a world insulated from catastrophe.
It is not, to be sure, a world devoid of conflict. Far from it. Even if there were not ample evidence in Vuillard's own work of a certain (albeit muffled) malaise, his close association with the first Paris productions of Ibsen would be enough to remind us of what the real life of the middle class was in this period of surface placidity. But it is a world to which Proust and Gide are better guides than either Marx or Freud. It is, above all, a world in which art remains supremely confident of its value and destiny.
In this world Vuillard himself cuts an attractive figure — a man lucky in his friendships, loyal in his family attachments, secure in his talent, and altogether benign in his personal and social relations. Those who knew him invariably wrote about him with affection and respect. No artist of the modern era stands a greater distance from the legendary suffering of the peintre maudit.
Yet there was, after all, something not quite right — something definitely wrong, in fact, in what happened to his art. His masterpieces came early and, for the most part, remained small. Their power is undiminished, and their complexity, perhaps, is now more apparent than ever — the sheer compression of Vuillard's paintings of the nineties has the effect of a new revelation to eyes that have become habituated to pictures than are nothing more than vast expanses of uninflected color.
Vuillard's paintings are, in every respect but one, a virtual catalogue of what we no longer expect painting to be. Small though they are, they are nonetheless abundant in visual incident. They are at once exquisite and toughminded in their minuscule accretions of observation — observation acutely transmuted into its chromatic constituents. They also boast an extraordinary charm — an almost literary charm, rich in the atmosphere of familiar life observed firsthand, rich in the humor of common experience, yet everywhere touched with a gravity that is never solemn. They are indeed a remarkable combination of pictorial probity and autobiographical evocation.
The one respect in which Vuillard's small paintings of the nineties are linked to what painting — abstract painting, anyway — has now become is in their radical reduction of every form to a "flat" field of color that articulates a continuous decorative surface. In Vuillard's painting of this period - indeed, in the best of his painting of any period — we are still made to feel the tension that inheres in this synthesis of affectionate observation and a strong decorative impulse.
The peculiar power of Vuillard's art is, I should say, to be found precisely in this tension, which confers on subjects an almost humdrum modesty — domestic interiors, relaxed portraits of family and friends, cafe and theater scenes, etc. — an eloquence out of all proportion to their intrinsic interest or to the actual size of the pictures themselves.
The complaint about the small size of Vuilllard's pictures — in effect, a complaint about the small size of his ambition — came early, and unfortunately, Vuillard himself shared in it. What he most wished to produce were large decorative panels for architectural settings — and, alas, he succeeded, over and over again. He was well connected, first with private patrons and then with the agencies that presided over public commissions. A good deal of Vuillard's professional life was given over to these decorative tasks in which, curiously enough, he gradually abandoned the strengths of his early "flat" style in favor of a more conventional depiction of objects and figures in space. It was left to his friend Bonnard — and even more, to Matisse — to produce the kind of aesthetically effective large-scale decorative work that one had reason to expect of Vuillard on the basis of his early painting.
If one looks for reasons for this evident decline, they will be found, I think, in Vuillard's steadfast attachment to the world that first nourished him — that world of cultivated bourgeois taste which reached a kind of crescendo in the aestheticism of the belle epoque and which was never afterward to regain its confidence or its elan. Lacking the large emotional resources that sustained Bonnard and Matisse, Vuillard's sensibility remained totally enclosed within the ethos of that world, which, in the last decades of his career, had become a world of bloodless phantoms.
The Vuillard exhibition that Mario Amaya has now organized at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto has the great virtue of concentrating on the artist's small easel paintings — which is to say, on Vuillard at his best. There are some later, larger works among the ninety paintings, but they are, with few exceptions, of distinctly secondary interest. The big decorative panels that survive could not be removed from their architectural settings, and so our view of Vuillard the painter is certainly not complete in this exhibition, but not everyone will regard this as a misfortune.
Included also are fifty-seven lithographs (Vuillard's complete output in this medium), nineteen drawings, and — a welcome surprise — twenty-three of the artist's own photographs. At least one of the latter — Vuillard's photograph of Thadee Natanson and his wife, Misia, taken at their home in the rue St. Florentine, Paris around 1898, can certainly claim an aesthetic interest equal to the marvelous paintings he was producing at the time.
The Toronto show has been selected by John Russell, who also wrote the valuable text for the catalogue and has, in addition, placed us all in his debt by including in this publication an extensive selection of commentaries on Vuillard written by his contemporaries. Mr. Russell's own essay gives us a vivid account of Vuillard's career and is especially good on the Revue Blanche milieu and on the artist's connections with the avant-garde theater in the nineties. Mr. Russell seems to be of two minds about Vuillard's decorative commissions, but in general he is a most reliable and delightful guide to the vicissitudes of the artist's life and work.
He has also ferreted out some unfamiliar masterpieces. The landscape called "The Saltings" is surely one of the greatest of Vuillard's paintings, a miracle of chromatic subtlety. But the exhbition abound in excellent pictures both familiar and unfamiliar — the wonderful domestic scenes and family portraits of the nineties especially, in which Vuillard seemed (as an artist as well as a man) most completely at home.
In the work of Pierre Bonnard we encounter pictorial world so enchanting in its delicacy of observation, so pleasurable in its careful evocation of time, place, atmosphere, and the feelings they engender, that we are sometimes in danger of overlooking one of the essential constituents of his art — its extraordinary rigor. Visual felicities abound in such profusion, gratifying the eye's appetite with such a surfeit of retinal delectation, that we hardly feel called upon to search out the source of our pleasure. There is a temptation to succumb to the paradise of sensation that is so abundant in Bonnard without ever bothering to consider what it is that makes his art at once so appealing and so strong.
For it is, after all, an amazingly tough-minded art that Bonnard has left us. Out of what once seemed to be the last promising remnants of the Impressionist tradition, Bonnard fashioned a pictorial style that looks more original and more daring now than it did in his lifetime. (He died in 1947 at the age of seventy-nine.) Picasso was not alone in his harsh judgment of Bonnard works. "Don't talk to me about Bonnard," Francoise Gilot reports Picasso as saying. "That's not painting, what he does." And indeed, for many tastes less distinguished than Picasso's Bonnard did not measure up to what a "big" painter was expected to be doing.
Picasso's mistaken judgment is worth pursuing, however, because it contains — not surprisingly — some real clues to Bonnard's genius. "He never goes beyond his own sensibility," Picasso declared, "He doesn't know how to choose." The result, Picasso insisted, was "a potpourri of indecision."
"Painting," according to Picasso, "isn't a question of sensibility; it's a matter of seizing the power, taking over from nature, not expecting her to supply you with information and good advice." Bonnard is condemned as "just another neo-Impressionist, a decadent; the end of an old idea, not the beginning of a new one." And then, in summing up his aversion to everything Bonnard represents. Picasso isolates very precisely the special strength and originality to be found in this artist.
"Another thing I hold against Bonnard," the quotation in Life With Picasso continues, "is the way he fills up the whole picture surface, to form a continuous field, with a kind of imperceptible quivering, touch by touch, centimeter by centimeter, but with a total absence of contrast. There's never a juxtaposition of black and white, of square and circle, sharp point and curve. It's an extremely orchestrated surface developed like an organic whole, but you never once get the big clash of the cymbals which that kind of strong contrast provides."
All in all, not a bad account of what makes Bonnard's art, in addition to being so pleasurable to the eye, such a rich source of pictorial ideas. Picasso was wrong, of course, about the artist not knowing how to choose. Bonnard was flawless in his control of the selection as well as the accretion of detail in his work. He was a master at placing not only those beguiling touches of color Picasso so abominated by also the forms that contain them — forms that were completely his own, a pictorial invention of a high order, derived with great subtlety from the very wish to create a picture surface that would form "a continuous field." And this "extremely orchestrated surface developed like an organic whole" turned out to be the very opposite of "the end of an old idea." It turned out, indeed, to be "the beginning of a new one," as the enormous quantity of color-field painting is there to attest.
That this accomplishment was not merely a matter of slavishly looking to nature for "information and good advice " is evident enough in the paintings, I should think, but if we needed any further evidence of Bonnard's inventive genius — of his exceptional gift for turning every observation into an arresting pictorial idea — we now have it in the superlative exhibition of his drawings organized by the American Federation of Arts and currently on view at the Finch College Museum of Art.
This is a wonderful show, and all the more welcome because Bonnard's drawings are so rarely exhibited. Here we have 114 works from the collection of Mrs. Kyra Gerard and Alfred Ayrton. They cover the entire range of his career from 1893 to 1946. They are all very modest in size, and yet extremely rich in the way they race the vicissitudes of Bonnard's pictorial development. Many of the tiny pencil drawings, particularly of landscape subjects, are, in effect, large pictorial statements in miniature. It is breathtaking to see how many tones, how many kinds of marks and touches, how many nuances of light and space Bonnard was able again and again to create in a few square inches of the paper surface with his inspired pencil. Here, too, only without recourse to color, we find the artist creating those incredibly sensuous "continuous fields" of pictorial invention out of an affectionate observation of familiar landscapes and interiors.
The method employed in most of these drawings is extremely informal, relaxed, and low-keyed. Nothing is highly polished, nothing "finished" in the grand manner. They are filled with squiggles and scrawls of an artist who is more interested in setting down an immediate impression than in working up an elaborate account of what he sees. And yet they are in the end very elaborate indeed — elaborate in the completeness with which so many subtle details are depicted and organized without being literally rendered. These are, after all, the drawings of a great colorist determined to make us feel the visual effect of color in all its delicate nuances through another medium. They certainly give the lie to any notion of "indecision" in Bonnard. They are, if anything, extremely single-minded, ruthlessly omitting everything that does not contribute something essential to the idea — the pictorial idea — they are intended to serve.
And yet, with no loss of that rigor that was an essential part of Bonnard's seriousness, with what good humor these drawings were done! There is a good deal of comedy in them, and much affection — as indeed there are in the paintings. If there is no "big clash of the cymbals," there is something more appealing and more durable — the chamber music of the French aesthetic sensibility at its finest. In Bonnard, as in much of the greatest French art, the hedonist lives on easy terms with the analytical intelligence. It is a synthesis of mind and emotion no other art has yet equaled — or displaced.
"Thriller Escapade" - Mini Mansions (mp3)
"The Room Outside" - Mini Mansions (mp3)
"Majik Marker" - Mini Mansions (mp3)