18 April 2012

Clearly Misia

 His best friend, Edouard Vuillard was hopelessly in love with her, but it was Felix Vallotton who saw Misia clearly.  The year was 1898.  Although he was the younger of the two, Vuillard (1868-1940) was the more established artist. Vallotton (1865-1925) was an emigre from Switzerland, maker of masterly prints, as we now know, but struggling to make a career for himself.  The two men were at the beginning of a lifelong friendship.  This may explain why the besotted Vuillard expressed strong disapproval of his friend's intention to marry Gabrielle Rodrigues- Henriques, even as he himself was under the spell of Cupid.
I have always liked Vallatton's portrait of Misia best.. Precision and decisiveness, used in service to the artist's essential vision: the individual personality made visible out of the welter of visual stimulae.    Misia in the spotlight appears quite as ease, as she was in life.  Viewed in profile, he self-possession is evident. The upholstered sofa she relaxes on can't compete for our attention with her strong presence clothed in a printed dress. Whether a literal detail or one of the artist's devising, the peachy sash connects her to her setting.  She is not swallowed up by her domestic interior, in contrast to the typical Vuillard woman. 
Vuillard painted Misia several times, as did Bonnard, Renoir and the ill-fated Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.  Lautrec was on a downward spiral of cognac and absinthe, evident in his painting of the dazzling Misia as old, fat, and frrumpy.  Vuillard's several attempts usually submerge the woman in a web of fierce decoration, from which a personality can scarcely escape.  Most peculiar, is his Misia aVilleneuve-sur-Yonne (c.1897-1899, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Lyon) where at the back of an uncharacteristically bare room, we see her standing in another room, her hands touching the half-open door in a gesture of denial.

A remarkable personage, even as a little girl, Misia Godebska was remembered by Eugene Morand as “caged up at her father’s house, a beautiful panther, imperious and blood-thirsty.’ She was born Maria Godebska in St. Petersburg, her mother died giving birth, and her father  was a Polish sculptor.  Her piano playing impressed Franz Liszt and Gabriel Faure.  Maurice Ravel would dedicate his exquisite Allegro for Harp, String Quartet, Flute and Clarinet to her.  The intellectually ambitious Thadee Natanson could not help falling in love with ther when they met in 1891.  He told her that he took the train to Liege each week to produce his new magazine La Revue Blanche; she told him that she spent her summer Belgium!

Vuillard and Vallotton took up photography together; in their personal collections they barely bothered to differentiate who took which pictures.  Julius Meier-Graefe, Vallatton’s first biographer, revealed that the artist drew on photographs to recreate the physical features and the psychology of his sitters.  You could say that the Kodak liberated Vallotton from  the need to conform his paintings to reality.  He began photographing during the summer of 1899,  while the Natansons visited him at the Atlantic resort at Etretat.  

Misia and Thadee also shared a talent for friendship, entertaining the artists and writers that the Revue published. They kept moving because their circle outgrew their various apartments.  Misia and Thaddee shared a love for art but Misia was not one to be over-awed.  When Pierre Bonnard delivered a frieze for their apartment Misia, who found it boring, improved it by cutting its straight edges into scallops. 
Misia's charm is obvious in her letters to the  young Valltton , whom she addresses with her own pet name, "Vallo."
“I am beside myself especially at the thought of Venice….I dream of serenades, of rope ladders, gondolas and palaces.  What will all these dreams lead to?”
“Vuillard is acting as my husband, as you can see, my dear Vallo, but naturally he is not behaving very well.” – October 23, 1897.

Meanwhile, Vuillard poured his anguish into his letters to Vallotton.
“My dear friend, I cling to you in order not to eat my heart out any longer.  Confusing problems are killing me.” – July 20, 1897.
“Yes, my friend, I have been here two weeks, unhappy to see the time fly by so quickly when the weather is so beautiful and we are so comfortable.  There is painting, of course, to spoil things…” October 23, 1897.
“My dear friend,…You know what my character is; I stayed with Thadee and Misia as long as I could because I was as happy there as I am capable of being.” – November 7, 1897.

Under siege by the wealthy and determined Alfred Edwards (publisher of the newspaper Le Matin) while Thadee traveled in search of money to keep the Revue afloat, a frazzled Misia took refuge in Basel with Vuillard as chaperone.  In love but hardly blind, Vuillard wrote to Vallotton:  “I found Misia rather better, above all, more resigned, finding it almost charming to lead a cloistered life, which, obviously, is the most novel thing that could happen to her.”  - September 29, 1900.

All quotations are included in Misia: The Life of Misia Sert  by Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale, New York, Alfred A. Knopf: 1980.

1. Felix Vallotton -  Misia Godebska-Natanson, 1898, Bavarian State Gallery of Modern Art, Munich.
2. Felix Vallotton - On the Beach at Etretat, 1899, private collection, France.
3.Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec - civer for La Revue Blanche, 1895 (Misia Natanson), Herbert Schimmel Collection, NYC.


Snoglobedame said...

First, l want to say that I've been following and enjoying your blog for a while now, and it was with particular interest and delight that I came across this entry about Misia, Vallotton, and Vuillard. Vallotton's portrait of Misia is unfamiliar, but the story of the trio's friendship has fascinated me for ages. In fact, I have just completed the third draft of a work of historical fiction that focuses on Vuillard's passion for Misia and the creation of the two large decorative panels commissioned by Jean and Alice Schopfer. Of course the usual suspects are present in the book: Thadée, Vallotton, Bonnard, Toulouse-Lautrec, etc. I chose to end the narrative before Monsieur Edwards comes on the scene, but I'm surprised that there isn't a novel that focuses on Misia's life--given that her existence reads like one! And I agree that at the turn of the century, the paintings Vuillard made of the people he knew weren't exactly portraits. Later, maybe, but not then. In the late 1890s he seemed more interested in blurring the lines between subject and object, foreground and background, even between people and their environment. At any rate, thank you again for your contributions and I look forward to your next entry.

Jane Librizzi said...

Misia Godebska's life could spawn an entire series of novels! Vuillard's later portraits strike me as workmanlike and rather thin, although they are evidently decent likenesses of the sitters, whereas the works from the Nabi period of the 1890s are bursting with emotional intensity and decorative energy. Vallotton's Misia was executed with more dispassion and fewer but more telling details.