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Art Fart: Edwin Lord Weeks, Edouard Vuillard, and making art from memory

Edouard Vuillard's 'Interior on a Grey Day, Vaucresson' left, and Edwin Lord Weeks' 'Interior of a Mosque at Cordova.'
Edouard Vuillard's 'Interior on a Grey Day, Vaucresson' left, and Edwin Lord Weeks' 'Interior of a Mosque at Cordova.' (Photo illustration by J.M. Giordano)

Memory is weird. It is always somewhat flawed and distorted. It's a string of reconstructions. It's abstract and subjective, and it's all in your mind. For all of these reasons, I've always had an obsession with memory as a concept in art. It probably relates to the way that I feel a vague sense of belonging or kinship when I see something that reminds me of something else. So when I walked into the Walters' "From Rye to Raphael" exhibit, I was captivated by the obnoxiously elaborate details in the architecture that Edwin Lord Weeks depicts in 'Interior of a Mosque at Cordova' (1880)—because those details immediately reminded me of a painting at the BMA that I love: Edouard Vuillard's 'Interior on a Grey Day, Vaucresson' (1922), in which the artist's aged mother stands at the foot of a bed, somewhat camouflaged by the wallpaper pattern and the daylight coming in behind her.

I stood there looking at Weeks' painting for about 15 minutes, getting my nose as close to the surface as I could without a guard accosting me and then stepping back. The painting's architectural rendering of columns and curved archways is wildly sharp—even as the crowds of people going down the halls, kneeling in prayer, become more out of focus. But I kept looking at the details in the architecture: the huge, ornate doorway in which a man, who seems to be leading the prayer, stands and hoists a flag. Tiny gold and bluish-white swirls, floral elements, and Arabic writing cover the surface of these walls, and it's this pattern that reminds me of the way Vuillard painted 'Interior on a Grey Day.' Both of these paintings have a similar warm, yellow-y/neutral color palette, and both have a sense of decoration and ornamentation, with intricate details. Where Weeks gets specific and precise with his shapes, Vuillard often leans towards the general, or simplified, though his 'Interior' painting still has a high intensity and energy in it.

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The wall text next to Weeks' painting describes him as "one of the United States' most prominent painters specializing in the depiction of foreign locations, from Spain to India." It goes on to note that "many elements in the scene are fabricated," though they look so specific and realistic. Initially that blew my mind for a couple of reasons. Since I was already thinking of Vuillard, I thought about how Vuillard often painted from memory (especially in his earlier work), and how the scenes and subjects of Vuillard's paintings seem mysterious and eerie, vague but still so detailed. And then I thought about how it's messed up that a white dude like Weeks can travel around and pick out details of people's cultures, then come back and make paintings that are supposed to represent specific places. We could be nice and say that it all comes from an "appreciation" for other cultures, but it feels more like he was exoticizing people and aestheticizing their culture. It seems disingenuous and potentially offensive to "fabricate" a scene of a religious practice in a specific place that exists. So that's problematic, and I'm not sure how accurate or flawed Weeks' rendering of this scene is, but I am skeptical of that whole notion on principle.

Of course, Vuillard certainly did similar "borrowing" in his own work (along with so many other artists, past and present). But the key difference in this particular example is that Vuillard mines his memory for scenes from his home and everyday life, and Weeks mines his memory for visited places. Creating an art object from memory is fascinating because the artist takes these abstracted images and translates them into a tangible object, making them real and permanent. There are endless permutations and variables, and one wonders when the artist is making a decision based in what he perceives to be verifiable and "accurate" according to his memory, or when he's making a decision based on his aesthetic. Where the "fabricated" aspect of this painting by Weeks leaves a bit of a bad taste, Vuillard's 'Interior' just reminds me of home.

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