- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 18, 2003

Smack dab in the middle of the National Gallery of Art's "Edouard Vuillard" exhibit that opens tomorrow, hangs the most extraordinary Vuillard landscape, "Twilight at Le Pouliguen" (1908) showing four friends seated in front of a rocky parapet below a mottled sky.
Vuillard (pronounced Voo-yard) probably painted it in August 1908, when he visited friends Lucy and Jos Hessel in Brittany.
The expanses of sea and sky there evidently loosened him up for this sketchy, yet solidly composed, landscape. In its evanescence, it evokes J.M.W. Turner's sea- and landscapes and anticipates those of Milton Avery.
The most abstract, simplified and impressive work of the roughly 250-work exhibit, "Twilight" is also one of the smallest at 78-by-148 inches. Vuillard (1868-1940) used just a few flecks of gray to dab in the figures.
The sky acrid pinks, golds, grays and whites is astonishingly textured with thickened-and-thinned paint. Did Vuillard use his fingers to smear some of the pigment across? He painted with brilliant colors, even odd ones. They're at their most pungent in this image, the most unusual in this varied show of easel paintings, large-scale decorations, drawings, prints, photographs and theater programs.
Vuillard produced some 3,000 paintings in a long career that straddled the turn-of-the-century. Although conventionally classified with his friend Pierre Bonnard and Paul Gauguin as a post-impressionist, Vuillard eludes classification.
While he painted familiar domestic interiors filled with family and friends reading, sewing and talking quietly, Vuillard was hardly the familial type. Never marrying, he enjoyed close liaisons with two remarkable, though married, women, Misia Natanson and Lucy Hessel. He was also devoted to his hardworking mother a widow who ran a dressmaking business to support her children. "Art comes first," Vuillard declared. "One can't focus on art if one has a family."
Contrasting strong patterns with pointillist dots came from the fabrics of his mother's sewing, contemporary tapestries, the Japanese prints that inundated Paris at the time, and patterning espoused by his artistic group, the Nabis. This group, which included, in addition to Vuillard, Kerr-Zavier Roussel, Bonnard and Maurice Denis, among others, strove to "synthesize" external appearances with subjective feelings.
A representative Nabi painting is the sparkling "Octagonal Self-Portrait" (1890), Vuillard's greatest self-portrait. Here, the face is given strong character by flat and shrill colors, no modeling, and distinct, interlocking shapes that could be pieces of a puzzle.
Underneath the veneer of bourgeois respectability that was Vuillard's favorite subject seethed the temperament of an aesthetic rebel. His involvement from 1891-96 with the Parisian experimental theater community led to a fascination with the symbolist plays of Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg. These Nordic psychological dramas of silence and suggestion invaded his art.
Vuillard designed sets, posters and programs for several theaters most important, the one he co-founded with his old schoolmate, the actor Lugne-Poe in 1893. Crucial to the new theater was the idea of "the total work of art" that combined scenery, music, text and movement to create a new kind of viewing experience. It was an early antecedent of today's installation and performance art.
Exhibit curator Kimberly Jones feels Vuillard, involved in the dramas of symbolist theater, must have seen Edvard Munch's symbolist works. Vuillard was never as direct in expressing pain and psychic anguish as was Munch in "The Scream" (1893), for example, or "The Invalid." Still, he effectively used dislocations of patterning and tensions between the two-dimensional picture plane and 3-D interior space to create psychological drama. Two earlier works, "The Flowered Dress" and "Mother and Daughter at the Table," both of 1891, are fraught with conflict, even though on the surface they seem like no more than complicated decorative exercises.
Vuillard's mother, the formidable Madame Vuillard, who often posed for him, dominated his introverted sister, Marie. The sister worked for her as a seamstress, so the relationship was close.
Marie wears a flowered dress in the painting of the same name. Vuillard pushed Marie to the right, like a decorative column. He patterned the wallpaper somewhat like the designs of her dress, in a kind of visual echo. The figures seem strung across the picture plane in a frieze of flat forms that mesh, rather than receding into the background space.
In "Mother and Daughter," Madame Vuillard is even more overbearing through scale, posture and boldly patterned dress. Vuillard liked to exploit the evening meal both as an intimate, homey meeting place and also for the possibilities of exploring the relationships between the diners.
This work depicts an after-dinner conversation. The table has been mostly cleared, and the mother's monumental form dominates the picture. Her body spans the composition diagonally, from upper right to lower left. The large checks of the dress add to her dominance.
Vuillard tucked Marie, in a floral print dress, in the left-hand corner an area almost too small for her. There's no interaction between them. Marie leans toward a conversation taking place outside the picture frame, and Madame Vuillard tilts her chair backward. The painter uses the empty space between them to emphasize their emotional distance.

WHAT: "Edouard Vuillard"
WHERE: West Building, National Gallery of Art, 4th St. and Constitution Ave. NW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, tomorrow through April 20
TICKETS: FreePHONE: 202/737-4215

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