Have you dated someone whose online profile scored highly, only to be disappointed upon meeting her/him? I’ve never used an online dating service (my wife has strong opinions on this subject), but my relationship with Vuillard feels like a disappointing blind date. At different times I’ve studied him closely. He has a beguiling profile filled with attributes I admire: he’s an honest worker, he never brags or shows off, and his subjects are taken from common experience. But whenever I approach closely, I come away disappointed.
The problem he sets himself is, well, a problem. His focuses on exploring interior space (interior of buildings, not some inner, psychological space), investigating pattern and the picture plane. While these are interesting problems (see Matisse, Cezanne, Bonnard, and many, many, many others), Vuillard is obsessed to the point where they submerge all other problems. Setting oneself problems is all well and good, but there’s nothing wrong with solving problems either; or, having solved them, moving on. Vuillard seems permanently stuck at the same place.
Another problem I have is scale. Vuillard’s subjects are intimate and his most successful paintings are small—intimate scale. But Vuillard wanted to do large scale works, and in his bigger pieces, like this one, his limitations are underlined.
Vuillard reminds me of another painter that leaves me lukewarm—Braque. Like Braque, his color sense is subdued—constantly in a minor key. Both artists were satisfied with a modest assortment of themes, which they revisit time and again. Both relieved the monotony by exploring different materials, such as silk and sand. Finally, both were overshadowed by a close associate.
Vuillard gets a thumb sideways because I’ve always felt this way—blase—about his paintings, and nothing has caused me to change my opinion Indeed, my initial opinion has only hardened over the years. What saves Vuillard from falling into the “just walk past” category is his drawings and prints. He is a first-rate draughtsman and print maker. Whenever I come across one of his drawings or prints, I stop and study it and I’m always rewarded.
Bonnard was to Vuillard what Picasso was to Braque. Bonnard overshadows Vuillard the same way Picasso overshadows Braque. It’s odd to me that much of modern art was fashioned by artists working closely with a group of peers. That’s all gone now.
Picasso famously disdained Bonnard. You can Google Picasso’s remarks, but essentially his charges were these: Bonnard’s color sensitivity was irrelevant in art making, that he failed to make decisions, and that he depended too much on nature. This last point (artists talk such rot) reminds me of the charge leveled at the Impressionists by the academic artists.
Bonnard’s color sense is among the very best—van Dyake, Monet, Matisse, you name it, he holds his own. The same cannot be said for Picasso. My overwhelming impression upon visiting the Picasso Museum in Paris was “What dreary color!”
Even in my poor photo of the Cleveland Museum’s “The Dessert,” one admires the masterful play of color. Picasso contrasted Bonnard’s color usage with Matisse’s more “intellectual” approach. I dunno, this seems like something Matisse would applaud.
When I was young I considered Bonnard a minor artist but I still admired his work. I gave him a (subdued) thumbs-up from the very start. But his stature has continued to rise in my eyes, and now I consider him one of the best artists of the 20th Century. He’s important for another reason, as well. In my view, Western culture died in 1914 in the trenches of France. Since then, we in the West have been in a long decline, or if that is too severe for you, a long transition to something else. The optimistic Western impulse is long gone.
But since then, some artists—like Bonnard—have (mysteriously) kept the flame burning. Bonnard manages to engage nature and along the way makes his engagement an exciting adventure. His art is informed by nature at every point, unlike most art today which self-consciously takes art itself as its subject and, therefore, is impotent is the face of the mysteries, horrors, and beauties around us.
Finally, Bonnard’s works are well mannered, gentle, and kindly. By contrast, much of modern art seems like art porn.
Two enthusiastic thumbs-up!