Art Thoughts, Week 36 -- Vuillard & Interiors

Red Interior, Edouard Vuillard, French (1868—1940) 1902, oil on tan paper mounted to panel, BF366.

When Dr. Barnes bought this painting by Vuillard in 1912, Vuillard was forty-four years old. He had been spending the majority of his painting life indoors – at least as evidenced by many of his pictures. Even the exterior presence was normally viewed from inside, occasionally sneaking in only by permission of doors, windows and porches. Vuillard had also spent a great deal of his life in the house of his mother, a cottage industry seamstress. In Vuillard’s childhood, as in all of our childhoods, the psychological interiors and physical interiors tangle and overlap; they often emerge later on as muddled mirror images of each other. Considering the comparatively drawn-out period in which Vuillard matured into independence, he probably had a heightened sensitivity towards and intimacy with interior spaces. He enveloped himself (along with his paintings) in the warmth, intricacies, patterns and lights of French bourgeois existence, making many of his paintings feel like blurry, flocked dioramas. He even managed to convey a bit of the exterior’s openness into his interiors – his paintings rarely feel stifling.

James Castle was an American, born 1900, who drew and sculpted impetuously for decades on his family’s Idaho farm, spurred on mostly, it seems, by his inability to hear and speak. This rendered him largely unfit for the normal rigors of a rural life. But he coped through his drawings, which are simultaneously dim and dreamlike; lively and virtuosic. Most significantly, he was locked into a permanent interior by the fate of nature. Because of this, many of Castle’s explicitly exterior drawings feel like they are ordered and close interiors. And unlike the conscious, preferential choices made by Vuillard, who was drawn to an interior life and expression up to and through his adult life, Castle was required to make the most of what he was given.

An interesting comparison may be drawn, however. When I was first acquainted with the Vuillard in the Barnes collection, I didn’t at first notice the figure seated by the table. In fact, she really only came into form for me the fourth or fifth time that I really concentrated on the painting. She is a definite fixture, draped in the same brushwork which Vuillard used to convey both the lacey tablecloth; the chandelier; her needlework. Likewise, in many of Castle’s drawings, figures are drawn with the exacting, blocky layout and line as the buildings, rooms and barnyards he knew so well. Again, they are like fixtures in the space, portrayed as simply elements in a composition. Of course, this is an important, basic realization in any study of art – to draw a person is to draw, firstly, the same blocks, chunks and shadows as any other thing which occupies space. Many artists go on though and struggle to imbue their figures with that mysterious and elusive spark which makes them that much more alive – or more accurately, which appeals to our perceptions of aliveness, and attempts to convince us of its verity. And in many ways, we alone know the true intimacies, complications and machinations of our interiors. Though spill as we will (and do), we can never fully share the depth and breadth of our core selves. If they do rise to the surface, the most poignant translations are rarely prosaic; at times they are poetic, and often they are visual. And when we each have that “aha!” moment upon making a deep personal connection with another’s art (and seemingly, their soul), we might well wonder if we are looking into a diorama or a mirror.

(above, James Castle, The Big Attic Interior, date unknown). Thanks to Greg Kucera Gallery website.


A brief clarification to Obama on my hope:

This refrain has been running around in my head, ever since the presidential campaign, and the ubiquitousness of Hope, so I'm going to let it out now.

"My hope is built on nothing less/

Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness."

-From 1863 hymn by Mote and Bradbury.

Coming up: next Art Thoughts, on Vuillard.


Art Thoughts, Week 35 -- Denis & Models

Mother and Child, Maurice Denis, French (1870—1943) c. 1895, oil on canvas, BF 335.

In one way or another, from the subtle to the blatant, all artworks operate under the influence of a model. That is, a pattern or precedent which informs a new work in its own foray into space. Even an object as unprecedented and radical as Duchamp’s ready-made urinal, has as its model traditional sculpture – though it differs greatly in execution and concept, it differs much less in its basic formality. Instead of marble: porcelain.

Maurice Denis’ Mother and Child falls into line behind a long tradition of paintings of the Madonna and Child (i.e. the virgin Mary and the Christ child), a model both powerful and pervasive in Western art. And, though not necessarily intended by Denis, any arrangement of a mother and child in such a composition invariably refers, and is somehow related to, other Madonna and Child paintings. However, once a model is used and acknowledged, the most persistently successful artist proceeds to further re-mold and alter the model in significant ways. Denis, for his part, turns us to the power of depiction.

In all Madonna and Child paintings, a relationship is implicit. But within this assumption, all degrees of relationships may be found. Many late medieval and early Renaissance depictions of the Madonna and Child emphasize the alienness of the Christ child – assuming him to be more spiritually detached – as opposed to Mary’s more obvious humanness. And there is of course physical interaction, and along with occasional differences in scale between Christ and Mary, it is often evident that these two figures are in a tenuous place – they are not of necessity intimate; and there is an insinuated spiritual divide. A relationship is definitely active too, in Mother and Child – and, as in most early Modern depictions of familial relationships, in contrast to those earlier traditions, their revelations are more realistic and honest. We can draw some conclusions about this relationship based on the relative depictions of mother and child. The mother, save for her bas-relief face, is depicted fairly flatly. She becomes a backdrop (secondary to the muddy puce and maroon bars in the background) to the more consistently roundly modeled and vivacious infant. Besides her face, the mother’s hands are the only other modeled part of her body. The black shape of her torso and dress edges create a flat, board-like layer, through which the hands and face emerge – much like a painted board at a carnival, where one pushes through their face and sometimes hands, to become a strongman; clown or animal. The mother’s hands and face therefore act as “entry points” into the infant’s world and that is, essentially, how infants encounter their mothers: through sight and touch; especially the mother’s physiognomy. Therefore, though their similar modeling suggests a lively commonality, the brushwork seems to weight the balance of the relationship towards the infant. There is some evidence this might be a portrait of Denis’s wife and child. If this is the case, then a natural realization of one’s – and one’s spouse’s – place in relation to the reality of a new child, could surely have entered into Denis’s decisions of how to depict his wife and new child, and especially how to make those depictions differ. In all unequal relationships, there is bound to be a shift in the balance of importance, and for mother and child – any parent and child, really – that is certainly the case. In many Madonna and Child paintings, it is harshly evident that the Christ child will soon overshadow and surpass his mother in importance. And in this case at least, the Denis painting follows its stylistic model.

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