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When the background is the foreground

Updated: Jun 14, 2022

This is today's Impressionist desk diary picture from the Met. It is by Edouard Vuillard and is called MIsia at the piano. It was painted in 1895/6.

The painting obviously has nothing to do with food, however, I do think if I try I can make it apply to food - or life in general really. And perhaps that's what makes it so great.

Now I am no art critic or philosopher but the thing that most strikes you about this painting - well me, and I suspect everyone else as well, is the wallpaper. It's the background against which Misia - the theoretical subject - the foreground - sits. Misia is a vaguely delineated figure - the most striking thing about her being her patterned blouse and the black ribbon around her neck. You can't really see her face and there is nothing distinctive about her pose. The wallpaper however is striking. But that also has no detail when you come to look at it - it's just that it takes up over half of the space, and has such a contrastingly definite colour and pattern. It dominates, and therefore sort of becomes the most important thing in the painting.

And yet it's called 'Misia at the piano' - not 'Green and gold wallpaper' or something that emphasises the wallpaper.

Vuillard is not one of the most well-known Impressionists, indeed the one thing I have learnt through this desk diary is that Impressionist is not just one style. Van Gogh is not like Monet, and Monet is not even like Pissarro or Renoir. They all have their own individual style. Really the only things that they have in common is painting in the open air - sometimes - a love of colour - sometimes - and a break with traditional ways of painting in a photographic and realistic manner. They are moment in time people. And this is certainly a moment in time. There is no feeling that the portrait - if that is what it is - is posed. It's a snapshot. A moment in a piece of music being played - to whom? Maybe not even to anyone.

It is from an early phase of Vuillard's painting life when he was a member of a group of artists, in all artistic endeavours including painters, actors, poets, philosophers, called the Nablis - which sort of translates to 'prophets' or 'seers'. They were kind of mystics. They were, like Van Gogh, and many of the artistic community of the time - we are talking 1880s/90s - highly influenced by Japanese art with its lack of perspective, and bold colour. Faces were not important. In Vuillard's own words:

"A form or a color exists only in relation to another. Form does not exist on its own. We can only conceive of the relations. ... In the decoration of an apartment, an overly-precise subject can easily become intolerable. One might less quickly get tired of a textile, or drawings without too much literal precision." Edouard Vuillard

That's a pretty damning thought about the importance of people as opposed to things, is it not?

So what indeed is the most important thing in the painting. The title would suggest Misia - one of his three muses in life and the wife of his patron Thadée Natason. There are several other paintings of her - here are a few - and in almost all, other elements in the painting dominate, or at least distract from or merge with the figure of Misia - the one on the right is almost Klimt like and even the one in the centre which has less of a distracting background, has a very distracting blouse and hairstyle. But she is distinct from her surroundings.

Misia at the piano is owned by the Met Museum but it's not on view, so currently in hiding in their vast storerooms no doubt, or loaned out to an exhibition somewhere else in the world. But let us assume that it's glory is hidden away in the background. An unimportant work - well at least to the Met - of a lesser Impressionist - whose work nevertheless can be sold for millions - the last sale I found was for over $17 million. But you'd have to look at the catalogue of the storeroom to be able to find it.

What is the point of the painting? Well maybe it's something to do with the fact that the relative importance of things in general depends on your viewpoint. Does it matter that you barely notice Misia because of the wallpaper, and also the piano which takes up most of the other available space in the painting? An almost solid area of fairly featureless black. Does it matter that you can only see a bit of the painting on the wall, because it is obscured by a vase - or is it a lamp - whose colour is itself merged with the colour of the wallpaper - and the frame of the picture - so that it too is not clearly defined? After all he could have changed the position of each of those elements so that they stood out from each other, and yet he chose to merge them all together - the music on the piano as well.

Or is it that Misia is all important but because she is somebody else's wife, then she has to appear as unimportant? Does it show that we are missing something really important - as we often do in life of course. Beautiful things in nature are often tiny and completely unnoticeable - dew on a spider's web, a brightly coloured ladybird, an autumn leaf or a mushroom ...

As to food. An example - on Saturday I cooked a new fish dish which was very very nice, if not stunning. With it I served a concocted potato gratin and petits pois à la française. Of the three elements of the final plate I have to say that the peas were the star. It was not from an actual recipe, but a remembered one, so I cannot claim credit for their invention. But they were a very small part of the meal. Did this matter? Of course it didn't because it was just dinner for David and I. If it was a restaurant meal then indeed it might have mattered as there would have been a hierarchy of importance on the plate, Balance would have been all. Yes the peas would have to have been good, but not so good that they drew attention away from the fish.

Was it important that 'my' peas outshone Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's fish? Well to my ego certainly. Although then again if Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall himself had cooked the fish he might have done - probably would have done - a much better job than I and the fish would have truly been the star.

Okay. Now I'm rambling. That painting just made me think - which is what a good painting should do shouldn't it? Or move you to sheer delight or some other emotion anyway. To be worthy of hanging on your wall for you to stare at over many years, it has to have something very special. So it's tantalising that in a painting called Misia at the piano, Misia should be almost an afterthought. Everything about her is a blur - her face completely merges with the wallpaper at the edges. So is she just wallpaper? Am I? Are we all?

Are peas as important as fish? Are peas really the same as fish? Are we no more important than a dewdrop on a spider's web shining in the morning sun?


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