Édouard Vuillard (1868 – 1940)

Kweiseye is an art criticism blog written by Tom Kwei. If you enjoy this article, browse the archive here for more than 60 other critiques of both artists and exhibitions. Any questions/queries/use: tomkweipoet@gmail.com. 

Perhaps unsurprising for a group that named themselves after the Hebrew for ‘prophets’, the Nabis were a forward-thinking yet short-lived artistic movement (little more than 10 years) based within France at the close of the 20th century.

Imbued with a desire to go beyond the excessive & superficial effusiveness that the collective perceived in Impressionism; their focus was to capture the intimacy of everyday life through a more decorative sense of paint. One that realised its own constrictions and thus strove further within this admission to appeal to a more refined, evocative aesthetic that wasn’t afraid in treading towards more exotic palettes at the sacrifice of realism. Expounding further on this notion in his book Théories 1890 – 1910, the movement’s founder, Maurice Denise, reminded his fellow members that all art is essentially illusion, declaring: ‘remember that a picture, before being a war horse, a nude woman or some anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assumed in certain order’.

Unlike the Obelisk worship of Dutch Nabi contemporary, Jan Verkade, or the extravagant theatrical subjects of fellow Frenchman, Ker-Xavier Roussell, Édouard Vuillard’s work is intensely confidential and hushed. His individualised ‘Intimisme’ approach to the Nabis style predicated on intimate domestic genre paintings. Through Vuillard we are privy to the glory of everyday life, his superbly human pictures achieving both a domestic reality as well as a subtle dream-like essence.

‘Mother and Child’ – 1900

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Though simple, and, perhaps on first glance maybe even quaint or twee. It is the subtle experiment with depth by Vuillard within ‘Mother & Child’ that endears it as an interesting piece.

Starting with a decisively low central focal point in the fumbling child, our eye is given time to appreciate the canted, knee-high level with which the artist has constructed the scene. From here we see the tremendously realised wall recession that amid its retreat endows the image with a believable, engaging sense of perspective. The wallpaper of this section worth a mention not only for the slightly embittered floral glare of the pattern that Vuillard paints it with, but the way in which both sides of the design seem to emanate outward from aforementioned dimensional curve gifting it an enticing visual quality. Yet this isn’t the only element of the painting that does this.

The eponymous ‘Mother & Child’ too possess an oddly circular dichotomy. At first our eye is with small girl who is clearly engrossed within her own personal struggle. Watching, more annoyed perhaps than engrossed, but still watching all the same is her mother. A parent whose dominating red glowers as true as the pitting embers behind her. In the act of observing with them then, we ourselves become implicit and caught between this dialectic inspection. Engrossed both between the two figures at the centre, and the sense of perspective that retreats behind and away from then.

To allay fears of getting too carried away though, let’s look at what Vuillard intended. His delicacy of paint for one, in particularly when it comes to the clothes of ‘Mother & Child’. Not for nothing it seems did he spend his youth in-and-out of his mother’s shop. The artist seems to notice every detail, catching the exact cut and texture of how both dresses fit. The mother a matriachal post box, as immovable as the elements behind her. The child below a wondrous flurry of delicate frills gasped through with thick confident strokes.

Captured here then is the accommodation of parenthood. The in-between sections of buttoning up and getting ready before everything else; the times parents remember were once a chore to them, and, perhaps in the future, may be again.

‘The Haystack’ – 1908

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Windswept and transulucent in its chaotic scribble of tones, the Haystack of ‘The Haystack’ stands as an ethereal watch-guard of the three companions before the rough bluster of the background. Again, Vuillard’s eye for clothes is remarkable, the inward fold of the female on the right especially virtuoso. Though a sense of actual purpose is more difficult to ascertain here than ‘Mother & Child’, the mood is crisp and effective. Slightly perplexing perhaps in the incongruous pairing of the companions in of themselves, as well as the collective together against eponymous shape, but still inviting.

Behind the Haystack though the world seems an unwelcoming place. The sky a granite wash in which blue is but an afterthought, the trees spiking upward from the coming wind. It seems as if to placate this atmosphere even further Vuillard gifts us a single sheep standing and looking up defiantly to the menacing clouds that echo his on a macro scale. The trio don’t seem to care for any of this however, they have found refuge behind a glorious swath.

A central image to which it is hard to know where to begin as its influence seems everywhere. Various spindles have fell on the floor giving the ground itself, with its delicate intermingle of burns, flowers and hay an almost Waterlilies feel in its incalculable delicacy of thought and imagination. The haystack itself rises as a question and draws us all the further in. Its tangled shape a tangle of shapes similar to what the great Scottish poet Norman MacCaig description of  hay as, ‘like tame lightnings’.

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Alfred Sisley (1839 – 1899)

Kweiseye is an art criticism blog written by Tom Kwei. If you enjoy this article, browse the archive HERE for more than 60 other critiques of both artists and exhibitions. Any questions/queries/use: tomkweipoet@gmail.com

Painting in a style far subtler than other artists explored so far on this blog, Sisley’s whispering brushwork always seems to me to revel more in the techniques of Impressionism, rather than the movement’s core strides towards realism.

‘The Seine at Daybreak’ – 1877

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Faced from afar with a small riverside settlement, Sisley divides the image into three unified wholes: the town with its people, the river and the sky. Whilst the settlement is painted in an endearing quaintness, with a chimney elegantly pluming above with its soot black top, it is the infinities the town is sandwiched between that seem more of interest to the artist. Indeed, the very that it is daybreak, with the town presumably hollowed of activity, allows these elements to come further into play.

Whilst the water elbows its way out of the picture, budding subtly more rich in color as it grows in depth, it’s the sky that really made me fall for the image. A vista that hands far more complicated than the world beneath it. The skill Sisley possesses here in his treatment of the cloud’s fold and crevasses is quite incredible, even the true blue of the sky breaking through is still dappled lightly with heavenly remnants.

‘Fog’ 1874

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A woman stoops on her knees working within a garden, she and it seem one and together. A union suggested not only by the muted color scheme, but also the roots that seem to run up her clothing, as well as the tree behind her aching forward in much the same manner. The pallid grey that washes over the image furthers this idea, with the ‘barrier’ of the fence separating portions of nature, becoming itself obscured through the haze.

The wispy undetermined fog lends an abstract quality to the present forms, trees and hedges become spindly nothings that surround the gardener unaware. Amid the entirety of the ghostly grove however, a rogue rose, a daring dot of pink cover that grins out from the closed mouth hues.

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