Edouard Vuillard & Kehinde Wiley — The Jewish Museum

Over the past month or so since graduation—has it really been so long already?—and following the turmoil of the fabled NYC apartment hunt, I've been spending my free time in museums and stockpiling notes for an extensive series of blog posts. So there is much to come (and soon!) to make up for how remiss I've been over the course of the school year…

First up: Edouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses, 1890-1940 at The Jewish Museum. My first visit to that institution requires a followup, if only to take in the two-floor permanent exhibition I had to bypass this time around. The exhibit came to my attention via a friend who heard about it on NPR's Morning Edition (hear the story, running time 7 min 19 sec). According to the museum's website, the show's perspective on Vuillard's work through the influence of his artistic circle and patrons not only "offers a fresh view" of the artist's career, but also continues the Jewish Museum's concerted effort to focus on the importance "of collectors and patrons [on] the development of modern art."

The exhibition's introductory text adeptly sets forth the overriding themes demonstrated here, and the show itself is divided into six comprehensible categories as outlined in the website overview. A fan of interdisciplinary work myself, I was intrigued by Vuillard's apparent "blurring of boundaries" between theater, literature, and art, as well as his obvious attraction to patterns and textiles. This focus is manifest even in the titles of some works: "Interior With Rose Wallpaper" and "The Gilded Chair, Madame Georges Feydean & her Son" are but two examples. Vuillard also examines pattern in his application of paint, repeatedly allowing the ground to show through and create its own rhythm throughout and, in later canvases, experimenting with different media to render various textures. I was attracted to his sometimes frenetic brushstrokes, his juxtapositions of color, and his treatment of the figure. As in the painting below, his human subjects seem to emerge from, yet remain part of, their context.

Messieurs and Mesdames Josse and Gaston Bernheim-Jeune, Avenue Henri-Martin, 1905. Oil on cardboard, on panel. 22 1/2 x 28 1/4 in. (57 x 72.5 cm). Collection of Guy-Patrice Dauberville, courtesy of Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Paris.

The interrelationship between subjects and their surroundings is equally but differently apparent in Vuillard's later portraits, which the introductory text informs us are among the greatest of the twentieth-century. These more formally distinct figures are ensconced within better defined interiors. That said, the setting and the individual are just as inextricable as in earlier work, though differently so. This is quite appropriate for the period, for a central tenet of the Aesthetic Movement—mentioned a few times in the exhibition text—engendered the idea that domestic interiors should be a self-conscious representation of owners' identities and characters.

While I would characterize the exhibition as just about the perfect size, I spent an inordinate amount of time with many works because there was so much to take in upon close examination of Vuillard's technique. I wondered at a few elements of display: the seams of the glass cases enclosing printed materials obscured the labels within, and leaning over to view Vuillard's small format photographs—which begged close inspection—obstructed the light source. The labels associated with two views of Place Ventimille—among my favorite works in the show (see below)—mentioned they were commissioned to hang together in a specific interior, and therefore I thought it curious that they were presented on opposite sides of the gallery.

Place Ventimille, 1908–10. Distemper on cardboard, mounted on canvas. 78 3/4 x 27 3/8 in. (200 x 69.5 cm); 78 3/4 x 27 1/2 in. (200 x 69.9 cm). Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Thannhauser Collection, New York.

The show does admirably prove the relationships it sets out to demonstrate, and it offers an effective overview of Vuillard's use of diverse media. A video in the last area of the show highlights his use of photography, and is also viewable on the website (run time 7 min 39 sec). While the film provides a more well-rounded understanding of the artist's work, I didn't particularly like its design. For example I feel the screen area reserved for text results in unnecessarily empty gray space throughout, and given that Vuillard created over 2,000 photographs during his artistic career, I don't understand why some shots are included more than once. The website also offers an interactive that drives home the central premise that Vuillard's work was indelibly influenced by his social and professional relationships.

The interrelationship Vuillard cultivated between [patterned] surroundings and his portrait subjects provides an intriguing point of comparison for the contemporaneous Kehinde Wiley exhibit on the floor above. The works on view comprise one of five series entitled The World Stage. By the show's conclusion I was curious to see Wiley's portraits from other countries, and would have liked an indication that some of these are visible via an interactive map on the museum's website. In The World Stage: Isreal Wiley depicts figures at once liberated from and entwined within the decorative elements of the painting, which in this series are based on traditional Jewish papercut designs. Examples of these papercuts, along with other ceremonial works, Wiley selected from the Jewish Museum's collection to display in the galleries along with his portraits.

Alios Itzhak, 2011. Oil and enamel on canvas. 22 1/2 x 28 1/4 in. 115 x 80 x 1/8 in. (292.1 x 203.2 x 0.4 cm). The Jewish Museum, New York.

This exhibition too includes a video, again available on the website (run time 8 min 20 sec). It offers a valuable opportunity to hear Wiley speak about the concepts and thought processes surrounding this body of work, and to experience some of his subjects as real people who speak about their cultural perspectives. On the other hand, Wiley talks about representing the "essence" of culture, capturing a "snapshot of what it feels like" in a given place while revealing his subject's "sense of self." It seems dichotomous to these intents that we then see him posing his models, and instructing them to look "more proud." One wonders if to some degree Wiley imposes his own ideas of this lifestyle or life experience on his subjects. Nevertheless, these paintings are a vibrant and personalized—even a confrontational—celebration of intercultural exchange.

Edouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses, 1890-1940 is on view until September 23, 2012. Kehinde Wiley / The World Stage: Isreal closes July 29, 2012. The Jewish Museum is located at 1109 5th Ave at 92nd Street. Closed Wednesdays, it is open 11:00am - 5:45 pm Saturday through Tuesday and Friday, and on Thursdays is open 11:00am - 8:00pm. Admission costs are $12 for adults, $10 for seniors/65 and over, $7.50 for students, and free for children under 12 and museum members. Saturdays are free for everyone.

Previous post:
Many Sides of Prezi

Next post:
City Reliquary