‘Maman: Vuillard and Madame Vuillard’ at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts

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The newest exhibition from the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Maman: Vuillard and Madame Vuillard, presents Édouard Vuillard through the lens of his extremely close relationship with his mother, Madame Vuillard. As Vuillard is often quoted as saying, ‘Ma Maman, c’est ma muse’ (my mother is my muse). While exploring the relationship between the artist and his mother, one played out in literally hundreds of his works throughout his career, the show also focuses on the portrayal of the domestic interior more generally, and the private relationships between women in this interior.

Vuillard, Jean Edouard; Madame Vuillard Arranging Her Hair; The Barber Institute of Fine Arts; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/madame-vuillard-arranging-her-hair-33065
Vuillard, Jean Edouard, ‘Madame Vuillard Arranging Her Hair’ (1900)

This exhibition marks the 150th anniversary of the artist’s birth in 1868 and centres on the first decade of Vuillard’s career, when his small-scale, highly appealing work, with its domestic subject matter, prompted one critic to dub him an ‘intimist’. Curated with Dr. Francesca Berry, this is the third show in the Barber that follows the model of developing an exhibition around one artist and a 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 (1900), acquired for the Barber by Ellis Waterhouse in 1963. This painting, seen above, depicts a private and intimate domestic scene with a rich exploration in the contrasting textile patterns of the dress, carpet, wallpaper, and bedcover.

What is most interesting about this exhibition model is how, through Madame Vuillard Arranging Her Hair, the Barber has created the opportunity for a new investigation of Vuillard’s personality and creative output through the lens of his relationship with his mother. Importantly, however, with the expertise of Dr. Berry, the exhibition moves beyond a simplistic narrative of maternal self-sacrifice or sentimentality. The relationship is framed 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.

The walls, painted a soft gentle blue, and low lighting, further foster this sense of intimacy and offer an apt environment for the quiet contemplation of Vuillard’s pictures. 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.

Vuillard, ‘The Dressmaker’ (1894)
Vuillard, Jean Edouard, ‘The Dressmaker’ (1894)

Overall, this is an 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. The combination of oil paintings, lithographs, photography, and sketchbooks gives a wonderful visual contrast and a rich sense of texture and context, much like the central painting of the show, Madame Vuillard Arranging Her Hair.

Maman is on show at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts now until 20 January 2019. Admission is free. The accompanying catalogue is available in the Barber shop and online.

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Author: Cai Lyons

I am a PhD student in the Department of Art History at the University of Birmingham.

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