CAI LYONS (PhD student, History of Art)
The newest exhibition from the Barber Institute of Fine Arts — Maman: Vuillard and Madame Vuillard — launched with a private showing on Thursday 18 October, and presents Vuillard through the context of his extremely close relationship with his mother, Madame Vuillard. While exploring the relationships between Vuillard and his mother — a relationship played out in literally hundreds of the artist’s works — the show also focuses on the portrayal of the domestic interior more generally, and private relationships between women, which made the show especially interesting and significant for me.
Thursday evening marked the private opening of the exhibition Maman: Vuillard and Madame Vuillard at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts. Treated with a glass of white wine, we mingled in the foyer until the director of the Barber Institute, Nicola Kalinsky, gave her official welcome speech. The exhibition, curated with Dr. Francesca Berry, is the third that follows the model of developing an exhibition around an artist and painting from the Barber permanent collection (in 2017, this was Jan Steen and the previous year, George Bellows). This exhibition revolves around Vuillard’s Madame Vuillard Arranging Her Hair, of 1900, which was acquired for the Barber by Ellis Waterhouse in 1963. It is a private domestic scene with a rich exploration in the contrasting textile patterns of the dress, carpet, wallpaper, and bedcover.
What I found most interesting about Nicola’s speech was the emphasis she placed on how the Barber’s Vuillard offers the opportunity for a new investigation of this artist’s personality and output through the lens of his relationship with his mother. Importantly, though, was the acknowledgement that Fran, with her expertise, has been able to take the show beyond a simplistic narrative of maternal self-sacrifice or sentimentality; rather, the show manages to frames the relationship as one of complex reciprocation, between mother and son, and offers an intimate look into the private lives of women in Paris of this period.
This last point is what struck me the most during my lingering walk around the exhibition. The walls, painted a soft gentle blue, and low lighting, further foster this sense of intimacy; offering an apt environment for the careful contemplation and study of Vuillard’s pictures which, by virtue of their formal properties and often relatively small size, demand, now as back then, a mode of viewing that is inherently intimate: proxemic and prolonged. The inclusion of photographs, on loan from the Vuillard Archive in Paris, also plays a role in this, given that Vuillard was a keen photographer and his mother played an important role in developing his photographic works.
But I was personally drawn to the colour lithographs by Vuillard, with their use of blocked colour and negative space, and the depiction of women at work, capturing a small sliver of this private world of women in Modern Paris. In The Dressmaker, of 1894, Vuillard depicts his sister Marie and Madame Vuillard’s employee Marie Roussel at work in the sewing ‘atelier’ in the Vuillard home. Marie is shown concentrating studiously on a design pattern, framing her work as something worth such attention. For me, as a feminist art historian, this portrayal of women, as active subjects with agency rather than passive desirous objects, subjected to the objectifying gaze of a male beholder, is very fulfilling. The dark blues used by Vuillard echo the blue walls of the exhibition and I find the combination soothing, a visual balm.
By contrast, Landscapes and Interiors, of 1899, is a riot of colour, with vibrant warm tones of red, pink, and yellow. The energy is more palpable, and Madame Vuillard, moving from one space to the next, enhances this. I am intrigued by the visual access given the viewer by this doorway, and this transition of a female figure from one space to the next. The height of the ceiling should make Madame Vuillard seem smaller, but her presence fits within the landscape of this interior.
Overall, this is a fascinating exhibition that gives the viewer an intimate look into the lives of women at the turn of the century in Paris, and the same intimacy is offered in viewing the relationship between Vuillard and Madame Vuillard, although this is often disconcerting. But nothing is overly simplistic nor is it too complex. There is space to form your own opinion, and to respond to intimacy so central — formally, conceptually, and in terms of subject matter — to Vuillard’s art on show at the Barber. The combination of oil paintings, lithographs, photography, and sketchbooks gives a wonderful visual contrast and a rich sense of texture and context. This richness ensures that your second and third visit are just as enjoyable, nuanced, and thought-provoking as the first.
Maman is on show at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts now until 20 January 2019. Admission is free. The accompanying catalogue, by Fran with contributions from others, is available in the Barber shop but also here.
And for just one example of the positive reviews that the show has generated in the press, see here .