Vuillard, Edouard: Interior, Mother and Sister of the Artist (1893)

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The Independent Culture

A picture has a frame. I don't mean the piece of plain or decorative woodwork that's put around it, sometimes upstaging it with dazzling gilding, and often casting an inch-thick band of dark shadow right across its top. I mean simply the picture's edge or edges, where it comes to a stop, cuts off. These outer limits are usually straight, usually four in number and usually in a rectangle.

Normally, with a representational picture (occasionally with an abstraction) they are understood as visual limits. The picture's edges are the edges of a view: they make an aperture through which we look at a scene. The frame shows a section of the visible world - a world that is presumed to continue, off-picture, unseen, outside the frame. A figure in the picture can be imagined going out of view, simply by passing behind this limit. Or a figure may be shown half-cropped by the frame, partly in view, partly out. There's no question of a figure bumping into the frame.

But sometimes the edges take on a more palpable existence. Figure and frame can come into contact. For example, the sides of the picture may be equated with the sides of an open window, at which somebody appears, perhaps leaning upon the sill, or resting a hand upon the window's frame. Or maybe the picture's edges are identified with a more extensive barrier - imagine a scene where the bottom edge coincided with a floor that was seen exactly at floor-level. Mantegna does this sometimes. All the figures, near or far, are standing on or walking along the bottom of the image.

That's one way: the edges are made to align with some solid barrier in the depicted scene. But there are also pictures with no such realistic pretext, where (all the same) somebody relates to the frame as if to a physical boundary. Nothing in the scene accounts for this confinement, yet the figure seems to be bodily cramped by the sides of the image, as if inside a box. That sounds like a puzzle. How can the mere edges enter into the three-dimensional world that's pictured?

Well, you could give a more realistic explanation. You could say: the figure is not being somehow physically confined by the picture's edge' it is squeezing itself into a view. It's like in a wedding photo, when the photographer makes the people at the edge of the group come in a bit, so they'll all be in shot, and in the photo they appear to be squashed by the sides of the image itself. But either way, box or view, the cramping effect can occur quite naturally, without any sense of tricksiness.

Edouard Vuillard's paintings from the 1890s are dedicated to confinement, physical and psychological. They're set in rooms, in the home (where his mother ran a sewing business), among the family, among women mainly. For some artists of that time, like Munch, the room is a sheer nightmare scenario. Being stuck in a room, on your own or with others, is an image of hell. With Vuillard, it's different. He's both claustrophobic and claustrophiliac. His gorgeous images may be suffocating, but suffocation is the only air they can breathe. Sometimes it's bliss, sometimes not.

In Interior, Mother and Sister of the Artist, the confinement becomes menacing. It's an anti-mother picture, I'm afraid. The figure of the mother is in command here: central, seated, in widow's black, in a confident, masculine pose, legs apart, hands on knees, elbow and foot thrust out towards the left. And to her left stands, shrinks, her daughter.

In the 1890s, Vuillard strongly emphasises the surface arrangement of colours. Flat decoration overrides all. A camouflage effect often occurs, in which patterned dress, patterned furniture-fabric, and patterned wallpaper merge into one another.

It is a blotting-paper world, and it can create an idyllic fusion of people and environment, a feeling of total at-one-ness and at-home-ness.

But here the camouflage effect is used strategically, dramatically. It is only the young woman who is spectacularly overridden by pattern. In contrast to her darkly shaped, sharply distinct mother, she in her checked frock half-disappears, absorbed into the spotted wallpaper behind her. She is an almost invisible presence, a nobody.

A nobody - but still confined. The young woman, backing away from the forceful maternal presence, is stopped, backed up against the wall. She looks not just camouflaged but flattened, as in a centrifuge. There's no escaping the powerful figure, no way out of the room, but no room within it either. The colour harmonies are warm and cosseting, but this is a grim image of retreat and entrapment, submission and dependency.

The frame only aggravates her situation. It hems the young woman in. Backed against the wall, she's also pressed against the left-hand side of the painting. And most strikingly, for no apparent motive, this tall, thin girl bends down so that her head lies beneath and within the top edge, as if stooping under a very low ceiling or a yoke.

She is subjugated, humbly and meekly fitting herself into this picture-space - this view or box - that her mother's figure dominates. She is stuck between mother and frame. She is elbowed out of the way (her bending body echoes the sharp bend in her mother's arm). She is literally pushed into the corner.