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The wood from the trees or the trees from the wood?

"If you can't see the wood for the trees, it's time to go and find a

beach." Sally Claridge Teixeira

Now there's a thought, and not really what I was thinking about when I thought about this particular topic - but I will come back to it. It's strangely relevant to what I was going to try to say.

This painting, Interior with Paintings and a Pheasant is by Edouard Vuillard. It was one of my Met Impressionist paintings in my desk diary last year, and I think I have used it already as a prompt to write about pheasants. However, it's also been on my mind as something to write about in a more philosophical vein for some time now.

I did not know of Edouard Vuillard before The Met diary turned him up. I found the paintings I saw by him to be so intriguing as it was often difficult to discern what he was actually painting. The hierarchy of importance was confused - deliberately I think - as it were. And I find this one particularly intriguing. This is what the Met says about it on their website:

"The painting in the background of this work shows the daughter and grandson of collector David David-Weill at his country house in Mareil-le-Guyon. Supposedly Vuillard was working on the painting in his studio when David-Weill stopped by with a pheasant from a hunting expedition. Vuillard placed it before the unfinished canvas in progress and began to paint the present picture."

Which was interesting, sort of, but not amazingly so. And then I found this comment on the Covenant Art History blog which added to the story.

"Around the time that this work was painted (in 1928) Vuillard’s mother passed away after a long illness. The juxtaposition of the death depicted by the pheasant and the energy and life that the children represent could represent the way that Vuillard was dealing with the loss of his mother."

The death of his mother is significant because he had lived with her all of his life to that date. A quiet and private man apparently. He painted her often - this one is called Le Déjeuner (Breakfast) and shows her sewing (she was a seamstress) at the breakfast table. And again everything, shades into everything else.

However, I knew nothing of the circumstances of my pheasant painting - well I did know about living with his mother but had forgotten. To me the significant thing was the confusion about what I was actually looking at. And truth to tell, I'm still not sure. Is that a painting of the two children in the garden at the back, or is it an actual scene? Perhaps he is outside in the garden or looking out a window, and the half-finished painting is on an easel, hidden behind the pheasant? Because it is indeed the same scene. But then we are looking at the finished painting. And the title refers to 'paintings' not 'painting', But if both of those scenes with the children are paintings, what is the larger one sitting on?

It's a sort of infinite mirror effect - like me at the Lume Van Gogh light show in a small room of plastic sunflowers that seem to go on for ever, with an endlessly repeating and diminishing me.

The Met tells me that it is not a big painting 33 1/4 in x 44 1/4 in. And the one at the back of the painting we are looking at seems much bigger than that - if you compare it with the pheasant on the chair - which we assume is real.

I could go on but I won't because you've probably had enough of that. And yes, the pheasant is the only clear thing in the painting - and it's dead - like his mother. Which may well be the point of the picture.

What it brought to mind for me though, without any of that background knowledge was that phrase "you can't see the wood for the trees", although in this case it might really be that you can't see the tree for the wood. Yes you can see the tree - the pheasant - but you can't really see the scene behind it - or indeed what it is all about. And is it about the tree or the wood?

Death or life? Life or death? The pheasant will be cooked into something delicious and sustain life after all.

What on earth has this to do with food? Or indeed - life? Well that's a life, the universe and everything kind of question isn't it? To which the very precise answer is supposedly 42. Have you ever wondered why 42? Is there one definite answer to life? One thing to focus on, or is it the whole big picture? A big picture made up of an infinite number of interlocking things as we are learning to our cost as the planet dies. Do you have to fix the big picture or the little things first?

All unanswerable questions really, and Vuillard doesn't present an infinite mirror effect in his painting, just a small one, and the big question of death in the foreground.

As to food - well here we come to the trivial and a very feeble link to 'my' painting. The everyday myriad of decisions we have to make when it comes to food. What to cook for dinner for a start? Which depends on any number of things - what's in the fridge and the storecupboard, that ephemeral thing of what you feel like eating, whether you want to try something new or stick to the tried and true? And if you want something new and adventurous where do you begin in your search? Even if you haven't got a big cookbook collection like me there's the internet and although that is very definitely not infinite it is very large - much bigger than 42. Or a single tree. And then again you could choose to either order in something - but what? - or go out - but where?

Then there are all those other associated choices - how much will it all cost and have you got enough money? Is it healthy? Do you have to avoid some foods because of allergies, or just simple preferences? Do you need to consider all those ethical and environmental conundrums we face every time we go to the supermarket these days? It's overwhelming. And the more you know the harder it is.

How to extract that tree from the forest? How to save the forest? How to save one tree? How to decide what's for dinner? Is one more important than the other? And therein, I think, lies the greatness of Edouard Vuillard. They are all linked somehow in his paintings. If only we knew how. But it makes us think at least.

And maybe we should just head for the metaphorical beach. Which might actually be a forest - or at least the garden.


I have been a bit uninspired of late I think and very probably a bit boring and repetitive, so in an attempt to get back my mojo I have decided to not try to post a blog every day, but will cut back to every other day - for a while. Which will allow me to do a few other things as well.


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