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A Specter of Surfaces: Modernism and the Decorative in Edouard Vuillard's Large Interior with Six Figures


This thesis examines the function of the decorative in Edouard Vuillard's 1897 painting Large Interior with Six Figures. Departing from previous scholarship, which positions the Large Interior as the fulcrum of Vuillard's earlier intimist paintings and his later bourgeois genre scenes, I argue that the Large Interior exacerbated his experiments with the depiction of decorated interiors and the subjects who inhabit them. The use of the decorative in the Large Interior shows space itself to be the consequence of a subject's relationship to interiors--her own interior, and the interior in which she finds herself. This thesis situates Vuillard's insight within the historical context of decoration's heightened literal, pictorial and metaphorical significance in fin-de-siècle France, from the chauvinist agenda for the French decorative arts to the alignment of decorated interiors with new psychological theories and corresponding conceptions of selfhood. Through a close analysis of the Large Interior as well as other paintings from Vuillard's early oeuvre, I suggest that Vuillard's 1897 painting deploys the decorative to generate a space with equally radical consequences for painting and for subjectivity.

Only such a strong characterization of decoration could possibly merit the role it would perform for modernism: the great "decorative threat," supposedly vanquished by cubism and yet plaguing painting for decades to follow. Decoration remained for Clement Greenberg the menace that must be used against itself for art to prevail over contemptible elements--not just commodity culture and kitsch, but everything domestic, feminine, and excessive associated with decoration. If, as Peter Wollens has written, the decorative is modernism's symptomatic shadow, understanding its role in modernist aesthetics and ideology demands that we develop a rigorous concept of it. In doing so, this thesis interrogates what has been repressed by the marginalization of the decorative, and why. In a final section, it traces the reemergence of the decorative in Picasso's 1914 collage and sculpture to suggest some conclusions to this end, and to attest to the radical relevance of Symbolism and the decorative for the history of modernism.

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