Contesting femininity: Vuillard's family pictures.

Author:Sidlauskas, Susan
Position:Painter Edouard Vuillard

Edouard Vuillard dwelled in a mundus muliebris, we have been told, a "saturated feminine world."(1) It has been assumed that the atmosphere of that world is distilled in Vuillard's domestic interiors filled with women - scenes painted with densely packed matte strokes that evoke the patterning of tapestry or the hominess of wallpaper. For a number of critics, the sympathy between theme and technique is explained by the fact that until the age of sixty, Vuillard lived with his mother, the woman he called his muse, a corset maker and dressmaker who ran her business from the family dining room.(2) Thus, the early presence of fabrics, trimmings, and industrious females is cast as a crucial factor in the young man's artistic destiny. Yet, despite this seeming confluence of biography and paint, there are striking and unexplained anomalies in Vuillard's early representations of his mundus muliebris: disjunctions that remind us that life never translates seamlessly into art.

Consider a modestly scaled image that Vuillard painted around 1893, Mother and Sister of the Artist [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED], a double portrait of Mme Vuillard and her only daughter, Marie, the painter's elder by seven years.(3) Despite the familial subject - a mother and daughter at home - domestic ease is hardly the theme. Mme Vuillard, a commanding, stalwart figure in black, dominates both the pictorial space and her daughter through placement, pose, and the doubling effect of the blocky chest of drawers behind her. While floorboards rise up to frame Mme Vuillard's figure, reinforcing her visual and psychic stability, they tilt beneath the daughter's retracted feet, further undermining what is already a tenuous position in space. Marie's feet are nearly invisible, and her figure appears to be far too attached to a wall that seems to surround rather than support her. The younger woman bends to accommodate the compressed space of her setting. Indeed, she cannot expand; if she were released from her awkward contraction, the trajectory of her head would be arrested by the window frame or molding that angles in from the upper left corner. Bent as she is, Marie seems to bear the weight of the painting on her back; she resembles a caryatid misshapen under the pressure of her burden. A drooping, perhaps even dead flower rests on the floor below her feet, but the possibility that Marie bends to retrieve it by no means definitively explains a posture that verges on the grotesque.(4) In fact, the respective bodily configurations of both Mme and Mlle Vuillard suggest that something is awry in this "saturated feminine world."(5)

Neither Vuillard's mother nor his sister conform to the conventions of feminine display for middle class women of their time. In fact, in different ways, each can be said to defy them. Despite her apparently conventional patterned dress and elongated figure, Marie displays a form wraithlike in its reductiveness, while her mother's assertive posture verges on the indecorous. In sum, the disturbing power of this work, and of a significant number of others Vuillard painted between 1890 and 1895, seems to depend not on an adherence to some notion of the feminine - as the standard commentary on the artist's favored themes, techniques, and domestic habits might cue the viewer to anticipate - but on an explicit, even aggressive, subversion of its signs.(6) As I will argue below, in a group of paintings of these years, this so-called lover of the world of women repeatedly suppressed, or inverted, the signs of his mother's and his sister's femininity - even, in some cases, their gender.

Two distinct, but interdependent, questions arise here: Why did Vuillard construct such equivocal representations for the leading actors in his "world of women"? And why have the theoretical and historical implications of these early efforts been neither fully acknowledged nor contextualized? To some extent, Vuillard's reputation, shaped in part by the historically feminized discourse on decorative painting, has acted as a screen through which spectators can filter out what they do not expect to see. Certain tensions in Vuillard's many representations of the mother-daughter relationship have been acknowledged. Yet the fundamental and, I believe, systematic deviations from the feminine that are the agents of meaning in so many of these images have remained virtually unremarked. Instead, not only Vuillard's paintings but also his life and his temperament have been identified consistently with a "feminine" sensibility, and the domestic insularity that is presumed to be a transparent expression of that sensibility is regarded as a defining limit of Vuillard's experience rather than as a theme he chose for representation.(7) His early variations on the theme of familial relations were shaped by the more public forces of fin-de-siecle France. Even the walls of the modest Vuillard apartment did not escape penetration by contemporary debates about how femininity was expressed - or suppressed - in both life and art.(8) Instead of the cliches of femininity - both fin de siecle and present-day - I want to offer an alternative account of how gender is implicated in Vuillard's work, as well as in its interpretation: an account of how anxieties about female sexuality compelled this painter to negotiate an untested, indeed, as yet unidentified boundary between figuration and what would become "abstraction."(9)

To identify Vuillard's early painted female figures as proto-abstract would be to cast them in the same teleological relation to abstraction that Alfred Barr envisioned for selected works of late-nineteenth-century painting in Cubism and Abstract Art, his influential 1936 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.(10) (Vuillard's own equivocal relation to Barr's narrative will be addressed below.) A less reductive and more accurately historicized framework must be constructed for Vuillard's early female figures, one that can illuminate the larger implications of their objectification, for "objectification" was not simply an inevitable step in the evolution of a pictorial style but a multivalent process with its own complex social, sexual, and psychological history. A key moment of that history can be told with particular economy and intensity through Vuillard's female figures of the 1890s and the critical inconsistencies and evasions that they, and their maker, inspired.

The contemporary discourse about decoration provides some structure for understanding Vuillard's figures. Yet the anomalies within his early representations of women - their attenuated proportions and contracted postures, their susceptibility to both pictorial and structural manipulation - cannot be fully explained as the result of what Vuillard's friend Maurice Denis dubbed in 1890 "la deformation objective" (objective distortion) - a visual distortion of nature in the service of a larger decorative unity.(11) I would argue instead that many of the female figures that Vuillard painted between 1890 and 1895 were generated by a more fundamental transmutation of the "feminine" body. These forms might be thought of as "body-signs" rather than bodies - visual and conceptual hybrids of figure and object.(12) And the narrative that makes sense of them must be woven together from at least three domains: fin de siecle myths about femininity, the actual social and sexual conditions of French women in these years, and the emerging discourses of the "decorative" and the "abstract" - discourses that overlapped more often than they competed in the early 1890s.

The models for the objectification of the female figure that I will employ to contextualize Vuillard's imagery will be drawn from what seem to be disparate worlds: the avant-garde puppet theater, the lecture hall of a hospital for neurological and mental disorders, a manual on gestural decorum, art criticism about "decorative females and female decorators," and social criticism on the relation of psyche to soma in the New Woman. Yet the texts and images generated by the actors in these worlds all shared a will toward objectification that was concentrated on the female form. Collectively, they affirm a historical shift in the way the bodies of women were understood to signify - a shift that altered the course of late-nineteenth-century figure painting.

The Feminine Temperament

The feminization of Vuillard's reputation was advanced through inference and direct statement and consolidated by its alliance to the gendered discourse surrounding decoration. During the 1890s, many critics of both society and art virtually equated the feminine with the decorative. As Camille Mauclair put it in an 1899 article on portraiture, "A feminine portrait was hence always a decorative work.... a stylized landscape of which the woman's body, invisible and central, was the driving force and the prisoner of the whole ensemble."(13) Socially conservative aesthete Octave Uzanne concurred, and promoted his vision of a world peopled by "decorative females and female decorators."(14) A similar construct would be applied later to Vuillard: as women were identified simultaneously as decorative objects and decorating subjects, Vuillard's "decorative" work - his tapestrylike, small-scale, women-dominated paintings - were understood to be the production of a feminized subject.

In many of the critical writings on the painter produced between 1931 and 1948, it was common practice to apply gendered adjectives to his temperament, only to extend them, as if "naturally," to describe the character of his work. Later, such descriptions would be adapted to define Vuillard's overall artistic achievement.(15) The critic John Russell collected excerpts from many of the early writings on the painter for an exhibition catalogue of 1971, and also provided his own subtly gendered commentary on the life and work. After mentioning in one of the opening paragraphs that Vuillard...

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