I have long found that looking at art provides welcome relief from the headaches and “spirit aches” of polarized politics and the culture wars that preoccupy me all weeklong. The art scene in New York City offers so many opportunities for viewing art from around the world—current, modern and past—that I am seldom at a loss for respite. This could be said of many other cities as well, from Los Angeles to Dallas-Fort Worth to Chicago and St. Paul, of course. (So take a look at what is on exhibit near you, if you suffer from a surfeit of news and conflict. It might help.)
On Saturday, I attended a show that just opened at the Jewish Museum, “Edouard Vuillard: A Painter and his Muses 1890 – 1940.” It is New York City’s first major exhibition of Vuillard’s work in over 20 years and it is very fine.
Many readers may readily associate Vuillard’s paintings with that of Pierre Bonnard, who is another member of The Nabis, or prophets. And there are similarities between the two in terms of technique and subject. But from what I had formerly seen of works by Vuillard, I thought of his paintings as small and dark and of his subjects as domestic scenes, often cramped, overly patterned and with poorly lit interiors. So I was surprised by some of the very large and bright paintings shown here and by his paintings of figures and landscapes.
Most insightful, however, was the curator’s point that Vuillard used what was at hand as a way of reflecting on his time and his world. At first that was the interior of his mother’s house and the various patterns present on the walls and in the furnishings and in people’s own clothing. Vuillard played with all these and sometimes reflected them in a mirror, like a painter who loves puzzles. Later what was “at hand” were the castles of wealthy patrons, friends and lovers.
For lovers of Paris before World War II, this show has a lot to offer in terms of style, home décor, outdoor gardens and a patrician way of living that has now expired. The exhibition received kudos in a New York Times’ review. I downloaded a free app from the App Store that corresponds to the numbered paintings on show. I’ve played it several times since then, because it is always interesting and the paintings are beautiful to look at on my iPod.
Karen Sue Smith