Vuillard was born in 1868, the son of an army man and a corset-maker. Neither of these are helpful things for an artist’s folks to be. From the army man, Vuillard inherited a bellicose conservatism that turned soon enough into an obsessive regard for la gloire de la patrie and all that. “Vive la France” was pretty much the worst attitudinal baggage that a French creative could lug into the 20th century. From the corset-maker came a taste for restriction, a faith in close-up material control. This certainly fuelled the brilliance of his early art, but led, I think, to his ultimate tragedy, which was that he could do small pictures but not big ones. What we see in this show is a Chardin seeking to become a Boucher, and failing.
Being born in 1868 was Vuillard’s second piece of bad luck.
It turned out to be an awkward birthday, because it meant that the most energetic and potent portion of his career was spent in the 1890s, that disappointing decade that was neither a proper end nor a proper beginning, but a decade hanging on, waiting for 1900. There’s a strong sense here of a man trapped between ages, and floundering. Had he been a horse, then, some time around 1910, the kind thing would have been to take him out into the yard and end it. He had been a Nabi.
He had been an intimiste. It was enough.
The show opens up with a suite of astonishingly brave paintings. It’s 1890, and, with no visible build-up, Vuillard has become a Nabi. Men, women, children and lovers have had their outlines outrageously simplified, and the resulting patchwork has been filled in with inlays of pure colour. The Nabis did away with shading, perspective, tonal progression, preferring instead the dynamics of a stained-glass window or, unfortunately, of a tarot card. Even in Vuillard’s case, and he was surely the best of them, the results can look worryingly like the product of a painting-by-numbers kit.
The Nabis, alas, took their name from the Hebrew word for prophet, a ludicrous gesture, typical of the melodramatic thinking that characterises a fin de siècle. A band of noisily Parisian art-school rebels, they developed a worrying faith in various brands of 1890s hocus-pocus: theosophy, Rosicrucianism, occult law. With their biblical beards and their creaky mysticism, it is difficult — no, impossible — to take them seriously today.
Vuillard, thank Jehovah, appears never to have been that kind of Nabi. Yes, he sported an outsize biblical beard. But he preferred the domestic terrain to the mystical one, and seems to have had it as a credo not to search in the far distance for his subjects, but to deal only with what was before him. His sister standing in a doorway. His mother sewing. His mother’s clients trying on their new dresses. The paintwork experiments with all manner of out- rageous flattening manoeuvres, but the topics remain strikingly quotidian. The everyday is being treasured, its mood preserved, its melancholia mined.
Although there are exciting things among this Nabi output, Vuillard’s finest achievements lie ahead of him, when he joins with Bonnard to become an intimiste. Unlike Nabi, which is silly, intimiste is a good name, an effective description. Essentially, Bonnard and Vuillard became masters of a psychologically charged impressionism: impressionism with problems, lonely impressionism, impressionism scripted by Ibsen. The two of them locked themselves in the typical middle-class French interior, closed the windows and watched the inhabitants not doing much. Intimisme was the reality tele- vision of the 1890s.
There’s a superb silence to these claustrophobic intrusions. You could cut that sense of intimacy with a knife. And in every picture, you feel Vuillard’s voyeuristic presence, hunched over the view, the embroiderer-painter, sewing together intricate patches of tiny colour to form pulsing quilts of intense domestic biography: his mother’s cloth had imposed its patterns on his eyesight. Vuillard never married. He lived with his mother until her death in 1920. Instead of properly consummated love affairs, he had unfulfilled yearnings and swoony infatuations. The women he wanted are always there in his art, mottled and distant, because the really curious thing about Vuillard’s fantastic intimism is the way it manages to turn all this proximity into all this segregation. These are the confessions of a very sad and very alienated man. But they are gripping.
Sadly, tragically even, Vuillard doesn’t work at all when he loosens the corset strings and steps back to the other side of the room to plan the large, bland wall decorations for the houses of moneyed acquaintances that were to occupy him between 1900 and 1940.
The show is subtitled From Post-Impressionist to Modern Master, but I would dispute that he ever became a modern master. In both the paintings he produced and the photographs, also included here, you see Vuillard adopting a country-house lifestyle of posh portraiture and expansive landscape approximation for which he is chronically ill suited.
Earlier in the show, we saw him getting interested in theatre, which is where his appetite for Ibsen-ish moods may have originated. And it seems to have been the influence of set-painting methods that inspired him now to begin working with distemper, a backstage painting short cut that involves mixing your colours with hot wax. Vuillard’s brush gets stuck in this stuff like a stick in a bog. Loathsome, flat, characterless, distempery surfaces replace the flashing oil sparks of old.
You want to grab this man by the neck and march him back to where he functions best: at sewing distance, a few inches from the action, in the intimacy zone. But nobody ever did it.