Did Vuillard take boring photos?

The big picture.
March 24 2003 11:13 AM

Pictures at an Exhibition

Do Vuillard's photographs belong on the walls of the National Gallery?

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Over the last few years, exhibitions of great 19th-century painters have been giving us a look at their work with the camera, too. The National Gallery's Édouard Vuillard retrospective has an entire room dedicated to photos from the surviving archives of the painter. In a recent exhibition of Pierre Bonnard's work, at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., several walls were hung with modern prints of photos taken by Bonnard in 1900. And a major exhibition of Thomas Eakins, the celebrated American figure painter, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, paid close attention to that artist's photographs.

It may be, however, that our very contemporary love of all things photographic has led us to present this older picture-taking in a false light: Just because some photographs indubitably count as art doesn't mean that they always have.

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Vuillard bought his camera—a low-end Kodak Brownie, the world's first point-and-shoot—in 1897, after he had already done many of his best paintings. The reason for the purchase seems perfectly commonplace: He wanted snapshots of his nearest and dearest and a record of the haut-bourgeois milieu into which this dressmaker's son had recently entered. He took pictures of his beloved mother—at work in the kitchen, on a country holiday, rising from bed in her extreme old age. He snapped a goofy shot of his sister and her husband mugging for the camera, with Mère Vuillard grinning in the far background. He made blurred images of his various loves, caught on the fly at tender moments. And he recorded meals shared with wealthy patrons and other significant figures from the world of arts and letters.

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At least in his early days, Vuillard was a deeply radical painter. His first experiments with color can make van Gogh's seem tame and beige. But working in photographic black and white left Vuillard badly hamstrung, unable to exaggerate and distort our parti-colored world in the ways that had made him famous. And even in terms of their light and tone, composition and framing, Vuillard's photos almost never stray from the basic structures you see in any early photo album. But they get their full quotient of museum space and high-flown critical hyperbole. A casual snapshot of Vuillard's lover Lucy Hessel, reclining against a haystack in a sloppy shawl, is described in a catalog essay as having a "monumental" effect: "[It] evokes at once the fleeting instant ... and the eternal solidity and grace of classical sculpture (in the drapery, which recalls that of the 'Nike of Samothrace' ...)"

But it's not at all clear that Vuillard himself would have bought into such comparisons. "How different are the snapshot and the Image," he said, in a passage clearly meant to favor the latter. There was a rich aesthetic conversation going on within photography at the time—consider the pictorialist work of Gertrude Kasebier or early Steichen—but Vuillard and his almost haphazard photos took no part in it.

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For most painters trained in the 19th century, if photography had any relationship at all to making art, it was as an aesthetically insignificant, almost mechanical step toward an end result. Painters often used photography in the planning of their work. Details from a few Vuillard photos turn up in his paintings. And there's a Bonnard lithograph based on a nude snapshot that he took, with all of the original photo's defects corrected. Last year's Eakins exhibition, organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, conclusively demonstrated that many of the artist's high-realist paintings began life as photographs projected onto canvas; art historians had guessed at this before but had no proof since Eakins had gone to lengths to conceal his reliance on photographs. To Eakins, the camera was at best a lowly tool—a kind of highly accurate pattern book whose images needed to be hidden under paint.

Preparatory drawings have been recognized as having independent worth and beauty at least since Michelangelo. But the preparatory photos of Vuillard, Bonnard, or Eakins didn't have that status in their day. A drawing could count as an aesthetic object in its own right because it could reveal the genius artist's "touch," just as a painting could; the mechanical origin of photographs puts them at odds with such traditional values. Vuillard is quoted as saying that "painting would always have the advantage over photography of being done by hand"—because for him and many of his peers, fine art still had to be handmade.

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And yet in all three shows, the photos were hung front-and-center—presented as significant components in these artists'oeuvres, not sidelined as interesting ephemera that might give insight to the work. That may be because today's viewers, myself included, find things to like and think about in these photographs by long-dead painters. They speak strongly to our contemporary sensibility, trained to appreciate the snapshot aesthetic of Nan Goldin and her ilk. And that should clue us in to the kind of art the photographs really are: not 19th-century works long undervalued and finally rediscovered but fine contemporary pictures made from found objects. They use nonaesthetic leftovers from the past as ready-mades, to give a very present kind of pleasure.

Perhaps we shouldn't give credit for these works to Vuillard, Bonnard, or Eakins. We might want to give it to those contemporary curators who, for the first time, have hung them on the wall. Otherwise, we may have to start crediting Marcel Duchamp's Fountain to the guys who made his urinal.

Blake Gopnik is chief art critic at the Washington Post.

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