By Rose Pickering
Any contemporary exhibition that deals with the concept of domesticity must consider the context of its visual representation. The group exhibition Homebodies explores our relationships to domestic spaces, situating itself in an entrenched historical opposition between interior and exterior that has long been drawn along gendered lines. Although domesticity may now be a common theme of contemporary art, it has only recently been accepted as a legitimate artistic subject deserving of consideration. The following essay hopes to shed light on the art historical context of domesticity, rooting itself in the history of modernism. Using the work of post-impressionist painter Édouard Vuillard (1868–1940) as an important reference point, this essay considers how the contemporary artists featured in Homebodies engage with contexts of domestic representation by disassembling and redefining its traditional meaning.
It was Walter Benjamin who characterised domesticity as a modern phenomenon. In his analysis of the lyric poetry of Charles Baudelaire, he reasons that it was in the early 1800s that “for the first time the living space became distinguished from the space of work”. When we consider the visual culture of the modern period, however, we seldom think of domestic imagery or representations of the home. The relationship between the arts and the domestic during the modern period has almost always been veiled by another nineteenth-century conception, the notion of the avant-garde. Taking its name from militaristic vocabulary, the foundations of the avant-garde movement trooped boldly away from the home towards an imagined frontline of culture and positioned itself in direct opposition to domesticity. For the twentieth-century art critic Clement Greenberg, who advocated for a teleological progression of art history that scholars are only now re-examining, the domestic was the antithesis of art. In his 1939 essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch”, he contrasts art movements to the “ersatz culture” of everyday objects found in middle-class homes. Equally, the seminal writings of modernist architect, Le Corbusier, encapsulate these anti-domestic principles of the modernist movement. He condemns the so-called “religion” of the house, heralding healthy, heroic and virile male engineers to champion the new avant-garde in the name of steamships, aeroplanes and motorcars.
From these descriptions of the avant-garde and its aims, it becomes clear that the progression of visual culture from the late nineteenth century into the twentieth century did not only set itself against the domestic but, by extension, constructed itself in opposition to the feminine. Griselda Pollock has defined these principles as the “masculinist myths of modernism”. She outlines how the public spaces of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century modernism were not accessible to middle-class women who, unlike their male counterparts, could not wander the city as observers, alone and unchaperoned. When male artists were exploring the spaces of modernity (the street, concert halls, bars and cafés), women were largely tied to the domestic, confined to the spaces of the dining room, the sitting room, the bedroom or the private garden. Domestic space became synonymous with female space and, as such, women were definitively excluded from the masculine arena of creativity and inspiration that was located outside the home. An opposition was therefore drawn between the domestic and the artistic.
In his studies of the Bloomsbury Group, art historian Christopher Reed came to define domesticity as a subculture of the art historical movements that evolved during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He outlines that “the domestic, perpetually invoked in order to be denied, remains throughout the course of modernism a crucial site of anxiety and subversion”. Inevitably, artworks that associated themselves with domestic and, therefore, feminine content were isolated from the art historical mainstream, overlooked and excluded from the course of modernist art. Modernism, which paved the way for subsequent contemporary movements such as conceptual art, post-modernism and minimalism, set the tone that domesticity was unworthy of mainstream artistic representation.
It is from this context that the Homebodies exhibition emerges, located on the historically embedded fault-line between artistic and domestic realms. In the wake of recent lockdowns, during which many of us have spent more time at home than ever before, the idea of the domestic has become untethered itself from this frequent comparative context, becoming a subject of study on its own merits. Homebodies does not consider the domestic as a denial of artistic creativity, but explores it in relation to more complex themes, namely ideas centring on psychology, selfhood and subjectivity. Ultimately, the exhibition strives to trouble the boundary that has been constructed between interior and exterior and, therefore, masculine and feminine. It is for this reason that Édouard Vuillard becomes an important art historical touchstone for Homebodies, as his intimate and often inscrutable artworks have long made him “one of the most underrated and misunderstood of modern painters”.
We are told that Vuillard lived in a “mundus muliebris, a saturated feminine world”. The essence of this world is distilled in the artist’s domestic interiors, occupied almost exclusively by women. Unlike his contemporaries, avant-garde artists who showed more diversity in their choice of subject matter, Vuillard “shut himself up”, concentrating on the interior scenes for which he is now most well-known. He conceived a plethora of diminutive canvases, all characterised by their focus on domesticity and women, most frequently his mother, sister and grandmother. He represented his mother more than any other subject and, as his most enduring muse, the image of Madame Vuillard in domestic space has become the artist’s most recognisable motif. Vuillard’s artworks therefore become an important anomaly in the modernist context of domesticity. The artist introduced an unconventional theme into the male-dominated space of the European avant-garde, revealing a singular ability to collapse visually the divisions between conventionally feminine domesticity and male creativity.
Here, we can turn to a closer study of an artwork that epitomises Vuillard’s domestic subject matter: The Linen Closet, painted around 1893. The tiny painting depicts the artist’s mother, Madame Vuillard, standing in front of an open cupboard, presumably in the act of returning or removing fabric. She is flanked on all sides by different sources of patterning: standing in her dark blue housecoat, dappled with flecks of beige, she is set behind a large yellow, grey and floral-patterned screen, which dominates the left-hand side of the composition. The upper left section of the painting buzzes with red daubs of flurried paint that decorate the yellow wallpaper. On the right, a bed covered in a white and blue blanket trimmed with crimson distorts our sense of perspective, extending to the same level as the vertical standing screen and denying the painting a sense of depth. Each patterned surface is given equal attention, a technique which flattens the composition and contributes to an overriding feeling of congestion and airlessness.
The Linen Closet exemplifies Vuillard’s artistic output of the 1890s in its representation of the domestic space as claustrophobic or, as scholar Francesca Berry puts it, “cupboard-like”. By concentrating on a woman engaging in the everyday task of storing linen, the painting adheres to the then-prevalent belief that women were responsible for the care and maintenance of the home. However, the painting takes this idea to its most extreme conclusion. Madame Vuillard’s figure has been completely absorbed into the very fabric of domestic space as the differentiation between surroundings, objects and body becomes increasingly muddled by the painting’s formal qualities. In The Linen Closet, the mother’s anatomy becomes subsumed by the cupboard itself, at once dissolved in, contained by and indistinguishable from it. A domestic object becomes the surrogate for Madame Vuillard’s form and, in turn, her subjectivity and selfhood become unrecoverable from the patterning that surrounds and the cupboard that engulfs her. Through Vuillard’s seemingly innocuous painting, we understand how domesticity and the female body coalesce and how subjectivity and the home become interlinked, within the four walls of this cupboard-like space.
Vuillard’s painting most readily calls to mind contemporary artist Jess Allen’s Portrait of the female artist as a linen cupboard, no.1 (2022). Except, in Allen’s painting, the female figure has disappeared completely, leaving behind only a faint shadow cast on the open cupboard’s cluttered shelves of fabric. In her work, the cupboard is not only representative of everyday domestic tasks, but becomes a metaphor for the dichotomy between our interior and exterior states of being. The closed cupboard door reflects the contained façade that we show to the world, whereas the messy sheets, towels and blankets within it reveal the inner workings of a mind bustling with thoughts. These ideas can all be associated with Vuillard’s depiction of a mother at work in the home. However, Madame Vuillard is not afforded the option of a cupboard door to retreat behind; her everyday actions are always under the scrutiny of her son’s artistic practice.
In her representations of domestic objects, Mia Pauline Hause takes the dissolution of the figure even further. In Cherubs I (2022), not even a shadow remains to suggest a human presence and floral-patterned pastel wallpaper provides the backdrop for a pink table adorned with a glass lamp and other homey knick-knacks. Hause thinks of these paintings as portraits without people, considering how objects can represent a person’s interiority and lived experience. Similar to Vuillard’s flattened picture plane, the congested and collapsed surface of Hause’s work reveals the significance of each individual object and what it represents. Emily Mannion’s artworks also tap into the symbolism that underpins these domestic objects, bringing a metaphysical awareness to the pots, pans, bottles, lamps, soaps and sponges that surround us. In A little dusty (2023), any sense of the mundane is undercut by the painting’s awareness of symbolism: a bleach bottle is not just a bleach bottle, it becomes emblematic of something less tangible, alluding to the invisible labour that goes into the upkeep of a home. As such, these artworks consider the duality of domestic space as a realm that is both functional and aspirational, secure and stifling.
The subject matter and formal qualities of Allen, Hause and Mannion’s paintings bring to mind the conflation of subjectivity and domesticity that are highlighted in Vuillard’s depiction of his mother, indicating that the domestic is indeed a battleground for psychological themes. These notions are taken further when we consider Nina Raber-Urgessa’s Terepeza (2022), in which a contorted figure twists into a bridge-like position, balancing a bowl of fruit and a vase on her stomach. The fleshiness of the female subject, enhanced by the streams of milk flowing from her breasts, is negated by her transformation into a table, a practical domestic object. Raber-Urgessa’s paintings consider the many ways in which women, particularly mothers, reshape themselves to fulfil domestic expectations and create a safe shelter for their dependents. The level of uncomfortable contortion, inspired by her yogic practice, also calls to mind another of Vuillard’s paintings. In Interior, Mother and Sister of the Artist, conceived in 1893, the figure of Vuillard’s sister, Marie, on the left is hunched and bent, pressing her hands against the wall in an apparent fight against the patterning of the wallpaper. Its vivacity and animation, which seems more alive than she is, threatens to swallow her whole. Marie’s figure wavers between resistance and submission, as she pushes back against her surroundings while seeming also to succumb to them. Almost doubled over, she struggles to find space for herself in the confines of the picture and has to bow forward in order to accommodate her own representation.
In a similar sense, Gregor’s paintings reflect a struggle between the body and domestic space, considering themes of embodiment and the conflict involved in trying to reconcile interior and exterior states. In Femme Sans Tête (2023), a shadowy figure is huddled beneath a brightly lit architectural structure that loosely indicates a room in a house. Boxed in on all sides by wooden beams, the figure is unable to relax, as this risks breaking through the limits of the pictorial space. Similar to the tunnel-like perspective of Vuillard’s Interior, Mother and Sister of the Artist, Gregor’s painting disrupts the experience of looking. As we attempt to triangulate ourselves in relation to the painting, we are continually denied any sense of orientation by the work’s insistent materiality that constantly asserts itself. Similar to the textures and patterns of Vuillard’s paintings, Gregor constantly reminds us that these artworks are, first and foremost, flat surfaces. These ideas around space and surface are also reflected in the work of Judith Grassl, who uses collage and three-dimensional models to map out her paintings on canvas. Unlike the labyrinthine and irreconcilable perspectives of Gregor’s paintings, Grassl’s works are sparse. They present us with eerie simulations of domestic space, representing the trappings of domesticity but none of its comforts. In rooms I (2021), the giant leaves of houseplants encroach upon an empty room, while the walls that frame the space recall the look and feel of the wings of a theatre stage set. These uninhabited rooms ultimately become staging grounds in which the artist’s subjectivity is able to unfold, acting as breathing space for Grassl’s sense of perspective.
These ideas that hover on the boundary between safety and claustrophobia culminate in the artwork of Gori Mora, whose depictions of domestic space introduce a sense of playfulness and joy. In Study of a room (2021), the domestic space and the human body fit together like puzzle pieces, becoming interlinked fragments of the same whole. Mora does not reveal the faces of his figures, allowing them a level of privacy that only home can provide. In these artworks, the domestic space becomes a haven, particularly for queer identities, in which we are protected from the pressures of the outside world. As such, Mora’s artworks celebrate the idea that the domestic belongs to everyone; it is neither feminine nor masculine, but rather a site for free and fluid artistic self-expression.
To conclude, Homebodies presents a progression in which gendered expectations of domesticity are upended and eventually dismantled. By bringing the non-traditional motif of women in domestic space into the realms of avant-garde painting, Vuillard’s artworks offer a contextual starting-point to this trajectory. While this choice of subject matter may have foreclosed Vuillard’s inclusion in many of the art historical narratives of modernism, it provides a crucial counterpoint to the dominant and mythic masculinisation of the avant-garde and its subsequent artistic movements. Homebodies follows in these footsteps, recognising domesticity as a subject in its own right and exploring our relationship to the home as something complex, creative, nuanced and symbolic. By acknowledging and then collapsing the divisions that have long been in place, Homebodies opens the door to a shared realm in which the domestic will always be worthy of representation.
Rose Pickering, assistant curator of the Homebodies exhibition, is a PhD candidate at The Courtauld Institute of Art, London, working on the thesis “Memory, Time and the Muse: An Exploration of Édouard Vuillard’s Representations of Women through a Comparison with Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu“.
1. Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: a lyric poet in the era of High Capitalism, trans. Harry Zohn (London: New Left Books, 1973), 167.
2. Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” in Art and Culture: Critical Essays (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), 10.
3. Le Corbusier, Vers une architecture (Paris: Les Éditions G. Crès et Cie, 1925), 6-9.
4. Griselda Pollock, Vision & Difference: Femininity, Feminism and the Histories of Art (London and New York: Routledge, 1988), 50.
5. Pollock, Vision & Difference, 62.
6. See Christopher Reed ed., Not At Home: The Suppression of Domesticity in Modern Art and Architecture (London: Thames & Hudson, 1996) and Christopher Reed, Bloomsbury Rooms: Modernism, Subculture and Domesticity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004).
7. Reed, Not At Home, 16.
8. George Mauner, introduction to Édouard Vuillard, 1868-1940, Centennial Exhibition, Pennsylvania State University, College of Arts and Architecture (1968), n.p.
9. John Russell, Vuillard (Thames & Hudson: London, 1971), 12.
10. Claude Roger-Marx, Vuillard: his life and work, trans. E.B. D’Auvergne (London: Paul Elek Publishers, 1946), 50.
11. Francesca Berry, ‘‘‘Maman is my Muse’: The Maternal as Motif and Metaphor in Édouard Vuillard’s Intimisme’’, in Oxford Art Journal, 34, no.1 (2011), 60.