Those Long Afternoons in Paris: the voyeur’s view of Edouard Vuillard ****

The sheer oddness of the angle of view is what appeals above all things else. Too pent? Too wonky? Too side-on? The painter Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940) lived for much of his life in a variety of rather small apartments in Paris, hugger mugger with his mother and his sister…

The Family After the Meal (1891), Edouard Vuillard, oil on cardboard, Private Collection

And it is from those small rooms that he created many of his best paintings, which are claustrophobically self-enclosed, and seem to beckon us to stand as close to them as possible in order to unlock their collective mysteriousness. This is, in short, keyhole surgery, a delicate prying and probing into the realm of the small-scale domestic.

Happily, the hang at the Holburne Museum in Bath, where thirty five of his works are currently ranged happily together around the walls of a single fairly large and gropingly low-lit gallery on the second floor, is perfectly in keeping with the spirit of these works. They look, when all seen at a single sweep of the eye, like the work of a busy, furtive, over-energised mouse busy at his daily mischief.

Madame Vuillard Arranging Her Hair (1900), Edouard Vuillard, oil on cardboard,
The Henry Barber Trust, the Barber Institute of Fine Art, The University of Birmingham

We eavesdrop on their sheer, pleasing awkwardness – the tilt of a head, the angle of a door, the lumpish obtrusiveness of a bottle on a table. We want to get as near to them as possible and perhaps – hand in hand with Alice – even to step through and directly into their looking-glass world. Luckily, no rope prevents us from giving them the closest of close eye-ballings.

These are careful paintings, acute to the importance of every single one of the clutter of objects which often threatens to over-fill these rooms. But they are also fairly rough and ready in their manner of making, inclining towards caricature in their depiction of the human form, its odd tilts, swerves, leans, as if the very last thing that the painter might wish to contemplate is smoothly self-vaulting academicism of any kind.

Madame Hessel on a Sofa (c.1905), Edouard Vuillard, oil on cardboard, National Museums Liverpool,
Walker Art Gallery

These interiors feel pent, chintzy, almost sweatily over-full of themselves. Faces are often scant of detail, comic in their poses. They glare and flare, mask-like. The ferocious patterning of wallpaper and rugs drills into our skulls.

We often see the human form from behind, as if trapped in that endless contemplative space between this and that, here and there. There is often a rapidity and a looseness, a near disdainful theatrical sweep, about their facture. It is all so entirely sufficient unto itself.

The Candlestick (c.1900), Edouard Vuillard, oil on millboard, National Galleries of Scotland,
Presented by Mrs Isabel M. Traill 1979

We find our questioning reduced to the most important of inconsequential matters: what exactly is it about the way that an inkstand disports itself on a mantelpiece? Crack that one, and the rest may come easy.

Vuillard: The Poetry of the Everyday is at the Holburne Museum, Bath from 24 May until 15 September

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