The Floating Circle visits Bath’s Holburne Museum for an intriguing show of Vuillard’s domestic interiors……
Local art lovers will be familiar with Édouard Vuillard’s 1910 painting Interior with Madame Hessel and her dog, one of the gems of the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, and memorable for its big, empty expanse of light-dappled floor. The works collected in this Holburne show have a similar subject matter – rooms, furniture, women (Madame Hessel herself even makes an appearance, though this time sans her chien) – but are mostly much earlier, smaller and murkier.
That big floor in the Bristol painting reflects light in a dozen shades of gold, but here we get a series of interiors dominated by dense wallpapers and fabrics that seem to absorb not only all the light in the room but the people too. In one painting a wall envelopes Vuillard’s sister in a sort of bear hug, leaving only her white face and hands visible. In another (The Manicure) a female figure’s dress is smeared into the garish decor behind her, while the man sitting to her right is little more than a blur.
These are archetypal paintings of the period spanning the 1890s when Vuillard was a prominent member of Les Nabis – a group including Pierre Bonnard and Maurice Denis. These French artists (self-styled ‘prophets’) believed that, in the words of Denis, “a picture, before being a battle horse, a female nude or some sort of anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order”, and that “the profoundness of our emotions comes from the sufficiency of these lines and these colors to explain themselves…everything is contained in the beauty of the work.”
Taken individually, Vuillard’s pictures here are perfect Nabis celebrations of the beauty of colours and decorative patterns assembled on a flat surface. In Two Seamstresses in the Workhouse (1893) Vuillard makes no meaningful distinction at all between the women and their fabrics: the pattern is everything.
But the exhibition is titled The Poetry of the Everyday and, taken as a whole, there’s a clear narrative that does indeed add a poetic depth to the show. The most commonly depicted figure is Vuillard’s widowed mother, a seamstress, with whom he shared a series of bijou Parisian apartments along with his older sister and for a while his maternal grandmother too.
It must have been a claustrophobic existence – and that’s certainly the sense you get walking round these stifling domestic interiors. The angles are frequently odd, the compositions cropped like polaroid snapshots, and the scenes intimate to a degree that makes the viewer feel uncomfortably voyeuristic: mother glimpsed through a doorway labouring at her needlework; mother at the dressing table doing her hair; mother and sister sitting together in a dismal silence (a picture ironically entitled The Chat).
Most striking (and the one I’d steal) is the very weird Woman By An Open Door in which a wholly lifeless, stiff-as-a-board Madame Vuillard appears to enter the room by floating.
All of which gives an interesting extra dimension to the way the wallpapers and carpets of Vuillard’s interiors ‘absorb’ the human figures. So familiar are his mother and sister to the artist, so repetitive their routines in these cramped rooms, that they are, almost literally, part of the furniture.
Edouard Vuillard The Poetry of the Everyday runs at the Holburne Museum, Bath, until 15 September. It’s well worth a visit – as well as the interiors there are some excellent still lifes and a superb suite of lithographs. More info here.
And while you’re in Bath do visit the Victoria Art Gallery for the Bath Society of Artists Open Exhibition (until 29 June), which features works by Stewart Geddes PRWA, Stephen Jacobson VPRWA, Malcolm Ashman RWA, Sandra Porter RWA, Leslie Glenn Damhus RWA and Rosalind Robinson.