• Looking at Art

    Strange Bedfellows

    From Fairfield Porter to David Park to Lisa Yuskavage and Peter Doig, contemporary artists have been riffing on Vuillard

    Northview, 2000.
    The arrangement of noncommunicative figures reflects the influence of Vuillard.

    COURTESY THE ARTIST AND DAVID ZWIRNER, NEW YORK

    Lisa Yuskavage and Édouard Vuillard would seem at first glance to be the most unlikely of pairs. What could be the connection between the gutsy contemporary painter of scantily clad sex kittens and the Nabi master’s portrayals of family and friends engaged in their everyday activities? Yuskavage’s imaginary universe of titillating nearly naked women seems very distant from Vuillard’s psychologically intense, buttoned-up domesticity. But Vuillard has been important to Yuskavage, as she made clear in a conversation we began just six months before the opening of the Jewish Museum’s exhibition “Édouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses, 1890–1940” (up through September 23).

    Yuskavage has admired Vuillard since her student days, and reproductions of his works hang on her studio walls. Not only does Vuillard inspire her use of color and light, but his dense personal groupings offer compositional possibilities as well. Call her an irreverent intimist. Whether she aims to transform the incandescent monochromatic light of The Green Interior (1891) for her 2008 painting The Smoker or adapts the arrangement of noncommunicative figures in Misia and Vallotton at Villeneuve (1899) for her Northview (2000), Yuskavage takes Vuillard’s particular modernity seriously.

    Like Vuillard, Yuskavage is a firm believer in the inspirational power of the masters, historical or modern, from Renaissance and Baroque painters to Post-Impressionists. No surprise, then, that both artists show esteem for a range of influences, from the classics—Piero della Francesca and Rembrandt—to such moderns as Manet and Degas.

    As a source for modern and contemporary artists, Vuillard has hardly seemed a match for Cézanne, Picasso, and Duchamp. But conversations with Yuskavage led me to reconsider a host of postwar and 21st-century artists whose works are clearly in Vuillard’s debt.

    Of course, every era finds a new way to interpret an artist. In MoMA’s 1954 Vuillard retrospective, for example, curator Andrew Carnduff Ritchie suggested that Vuillard’s Symbolist values offered an inward, private sensibility that was newly relevant for the highly personal ethos of postwar painting. Fairfield Porter, the luminous painter of the familiar and the familial, clearly looked at Vuillard. In fact, his decision to become a painter was the direct result of his seeing an exhibition of paintings and prints by Vuillard and Bonnard at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1938. In a work such as Lizzie at the Table (1958), Porter shows people in their domestic surroundings, a theme dear to the older artist. Porter considered Vuillard a painter of “extreme sophistication”—one who created more convincingly than Cézanne the “solid and enduring out of Impressionism.” The poet John Ashbery claimed that Porter preferred the late “woolly Vuillards”—like Luncheon at Les Clayes (1935-38)—“to the early ones everyone likes.”

    Howard Hodgkin, the British painter of lively lyrical abstractions, is so enamored of the Nabi painter that he entitled his 1996 work incorporating a (neo) Neo-Impressionist painted frame After Vuillard. According to Hodgkin, Vuillard’s art has been his most important influence. The Pointillist patterns, the rectangular swaths of color, the compositions—all pay homage to the French master.

    David Park, a member of the San Francisco Bay Area group of artists in the years after World War II, has also been linked to Vuillard. The everyday nature of Park’s subjects, the intimate observations of his otherwise engaged sitters, the dots, the stripes, the lush yet restrained color, and the expressive paint handling offer support for connections that critics have often noticed. In terms of both subject and composition, few pairings offer better parallels than Park’s technological update of Vuillard’s homespun image Woman Darning (1891–2) in his Lydia at the Sewing Machine (1950).

    On the east coast, Alex Katz has been equally influenced by Vuillard. Katz is also obsessed with his own inner circle of family and friends. His play between indoors and out, his focus on urban bohemia and rural leisure, and his abruptly cropped figures have all been noted in relation to Vuillard. This is especially the case in the smaller, more freely painted canvases such as East Window (1979), a portrait of Katz’s favorite muse, his wife, Ada.

    Most of the above-mentioned painters came of age in the years after 1950 and have become modern masters of a certain painterly sensibility in their own right, taking a detour from the more canonical highways of Abstract Expressionism, Pop art, and Minimalism.

    Vuillard’s influence grew in the waning years of the 20th century and even more during the first dozen years of the 21st. One sees it in the work of a cluster of diverse artists whose delicate, jittery paint application, airy tonalities, and focus on claustrophobic domestic situations or on dappled bucolic light suggest links with the older artist.

    Peter Doig, for example, although he leans more toward the Bonnard side of the Nabi equation, clearly refers to Vuillard in his intense landscape Ski Jacket (1994), which channels the tonal, decorative effects and scale of a picture such as Vuillard’s monumental Walking in the Vineyard (ca. 1897–99).

    According to several writers, the Vuillard effect on a younger generation of painters has been reflected in a turn toward the eerie or near hallucinatory. These young artists ramp up the density and oddity of Vuillard’s subjects as they take his delicacy to new extremes. Kim Levin calls Peter Doig “Vuillard on acid,” and Elisabeth Kley imagines Kai Althoff as the “love child of Édouard Vuillard and Egon Schiele.” Althoff’s 2001 Untitled (Scene in room with bed), with its pale tonalities, curious interaction of figures in a compressed space, and intimations of illness or fragility, seems a dead ringer for Vuillard’s dramatic The Consultation (1922).

    The delicate pale palette of Swedish artist Mamma Andersson in Pigeon House (2010) exploits the unpainted areas of her canvases toward a mannered expression of dappled light. For the cinematic angst in her domestic dramas, Andersson has been dubbed a “Vuillard for the post-Hitchcock era.” Given her nationality, an association with the filmmaker Ingmar Bergman would be more apt, especially considering the fact that Bergman and Vuillard were both influenced by the Scandinavian playwrights Ibsen and Strindberg.

    Jonas Wood’s paintings are snapshots of the artist’s life. Like Vuillard’s, they are filled with the paraphernalia of the everyday. In a work such as The Hypnotist (2011), for example, the artist creates a tug-of-war between the psychological and the material. We enter a personal world of increasingly hermetic relationships—a transformation from the modernity of relationships in the age of Freud to the psychic remoteness of our digital age.

    Although Vuillard is the quintessential painter’s painter, his influence extends to artists in other media. Photographer Tina Barney, for example, has stated clearly that Vuillard’s obsessive attention to light, textures, patterns, and palette, not to mention his focus on curious domestic dramas, have been major touchstones for her. In her photos, as in his paintings, we enter the private reserves of a family, catching them in daily routines, surrounded by the material density of their privileged surroundings.

    The references to Vuillard in Barney’s photographs are both general and specific. In Jill and Polly in the Bathroom (1987), the decorator patterns of ’80s chintz curtains and the color-coordinated bathrobes worn by the protagonists caught in the act of their morning toilette hark back to Vuillard’s observations of his own family engaged in their everyday activities in the 1890s. The Brocade Walls (2003), Barney’s formal group portrait of collectors staged in a luxurious salon filled with European portraits and furnishings, seems comparable to Vuillard’s 1925 commissioned portrait of the collector David David-Weill, who is similarly set against his carefully arranged collections of Old Master pictures and 18th-century French furniture. Barney says that “the things that entice me are light and then textures and colors—the things that Vuillard was interested in—and the patterns.”

    The large decorative ensembles on malleable or translucent supports (shirred rubber or pleated tulle) by the Israeli-born artist Izhar Patkin seem at first glance reminiscent of Vuillard’s murals, so I expected Patkin to compare aspects of his current work to Vuillard’s large-scale commissions, but he sees their connection differently. He thinks it has to do with Vuillard’s figuration in an age of photography. Patkin says that Vuillard’s “pictorial perspective is under the spell of the camera lens. The framing of the scenes, the cropping, snapshot staging—his interiors could not have been painted before the photographic print.” Likewise, Patkin considers that his own veil paintings “could not have been created before the cinematic screen . . . before proliferation of the weightless transmitted video and digital images.”

    Marc Camille Chaimowicz is another artist who has been obsessed with Vuillard for decades. He creates wallpaper that is not only inspired by the Nabi painters but is also used as a prop upon which to re-present their works. Chaimowicz’s rehanging of paintings by Vuillard in new contexts informs his own practice, which encompasses conceptual art, design, and installation. Working with the collections of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and the historic Inverleith House in Edinburgh, Chaimowicz reinstalled Vuillard’s The Pink Bedroom (1910-11), removing it from the museum’s collection to a wall in the house that had been newly papered with his wallpaper.

    Lucy Skaer’s work addresses similarly complex intersections of sculpture and photography, drawing, and film. She has created a widely exhibited series of photographs of her handmade collage sculptures positioned in front of Vuillard’s densely patterned decorative panel Album (1895). Seeking to collapse the historical with the contemporary, and the masterpiece with her modest assemblages, she creates a focus on the formal connections between her work and his, between the past and the present. Us to Them III (2012) offers an intensified perception of both contemporary sculpture and the modernist masterwork.

    Skaer clearly invites us, as do many of the artists mentioned above, to a new level of perception and appreciation for the contemporaneity and relevance of Vuillard.

    Norman L. Kleeblatt is the Susan and Elihu Rose Chief Curator of the Jewish Museum in New York.

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