Thursday, November 15, 2007

A Prophet in His Own Land

As part of Les Nabis, Edouard Vuillard painted some of the most innovative interiors of his generation. Born November 11, 1868, Vuillard fostered the visionary (“Nabis” means “prophet” in Hebrew) in paintings such as The Green Interior or Figure in front of a Window with Drawn Curtains (above, from 1891), which takes a simple interior and places a distorting, transforming lens in front of it. Although fellow Nabis Pierre Bonnard and Maurice Denis painted in a similar style, Vuillard truly brought a visionary taste for color to his works, prophetically setting the stage for the many later color innovations of the Fauves and Matisse.

Vuillard’s career as a painter parallels the rise of the photographic camera in Europe as something available to the masses. Freeing painting from the obligation to be true photographically, artists felt the license to go completely wild with their technique, straying further and further from realism. The slippery slope greased by the Impressionists gets steeper with Post-Impressionist movements such as the Nabis. Vuillard’s Octagonal Self-Portrait (above, from 1890) glows with unreal color, something Matisse would copy in his portrait of his wife, The Green Stripe. Vuillard also takes the additional step of blurring all detail, as if he had moved during the exposure of a photographic plate.

Like so many French artists, Vuillard loved the Louvre, haunting those halls frequently and copying the masters all around him. The influence of Vermeer on his interiors begins with their shared love of simple genre scenes (in this case, women sewing) and their shared love of how light fills a room. Where Vuillard departs from Vermeer is in his total disregard for detail, something Vermeer painted obsessively. Instead, in Length of Thread or Interior with Sewing Women (above, from 1893), Vuillard simply suggests the women sitting and the aspects of the room around them, placing his highest priority on the light flooding the room, which obliterates the features of the woman on the right. The textures of the drapes and wallpaper appear to vibrate from the juxtaposition of light and dark, elevating beyond mere ornamentation and becoming fellow actors within the painting. The shaky outline of the dark figure in the center, with her back towards us, similarly creates the illusion of movement. Vuillard lived another 47 years after painting these images, which represent the height of his career, perhaps never again finding such a powerful way to convey his unique ideas.

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