What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Vuillard's Late Portraits: Barnes's Bravura Dissent

Édouard Vuillard, "Jeanne Lanvin" (1933)

What does “Vuillardize” mean? Peter Schjeldahl, in his "Parlor Music" (The New Yorker, March 10, 2003; included in his 2008 collection Let’s See), a review of the huge Édouard Vuillard retrospective that appeared in Washington, Montreal, Paris, and London, in 2003-4, says of Vuillard’s late portraits,

The compulsive renderings of settings, with their pointless attention to bric-a-brac, cast the sitters as an interior decorator’s stilted, finishing touches. In these commissions, he didn’t so much portray his self-satisfied patrons as Vuillardize them.

In Schjeldahl’s opinion, Vuillardization spoils the portrait, rendering the sitter as just one more aspect of the décor. Sanford Schwartz, reviewing the same show, expresses a similar view. He says,

You take in these works where the sitters, in their homes or offices, are surrounded by their lamps, telephones, pets, rugs, coffee cups, artworks on the wall, children’s toys, fountain-pen holders, stacks of mail, and seemingly scores of other items, all of which are exactly as engaging as the person at the center of it, with the same instantaneous avidity with which you pick up Architectural Digest; and you forget these pictures as immediately as you forget Architectural Digest. [‘The Genius of the Family,” The New York Review of Books, April 10, 2003]

But, interestingly, Julian Barnes, in his review of the 2003-4 Vuillard retrospective, titled “Vuillard: You Can Call Him Édouard” (included in his recent collection Keeping An Eye Open), dissents. He says, “We ought by now to be able to look at Vuillard’s later work more even-handedly.” He calls Vuillard’s Jeanne Lanvin (1933) “one of his finest late paintings – indeed one of the great twentieth-century portraits.” He says,

It contrasts the disorder of creation – samples, fabrics, loose papers and other items falling off the front right of the desk – with the absolute orderliness of money: the neat account books, the safe-like metallic drawers behind the sitter. The painting is held together by color: from bottom left to top right, the greens of the glass sculpture case, the sitter’s jacket, and up into the gray-green shadows; from bottom right to top left, the reds of the fabric samples, sitter’s lips and book spines. The two colors intersect cannily – and no doubt truly – in Mme Lanvin’s jacket: there, on the green lapel, sits the scarlet ribbon of the Légion d’Honneur.

Barnes calls Jeanne Lanvin “a triumph of relevant detail.” I find his analysis persuasive. He’s opened Vuillard’s late portraits to new discovery.

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