Elm City Scrapbook is a column alternately written by Daniella Sanchez (MC ’25) and Catherine Kausikan (GH ’25) which each week tells the story of a work of art in or around New Haven.
My favorite artist is Edouard Vuillard. He is white, male, bourgeois, French. Oftentimes, I find these facts embarrassing to admit. After all, there is so much wonderful art out there. I do find real resonance in a large diversity of works. Yet, it is a man from 19th-century France that I hold most dear. Isn’t this preference for Vuillard just evidence of a colonial hangover I can’t quite shrug off?
Even if there’s nothing wrong with liking an artist’s work, my discomfort lies in the fear that something more pernicious governs my tastes. What I know about art history has relied so much on a narrative of Western art as the center of the universe. The artists we celebrate as pioneers of Singaporean art drew inspiration from the likes of Gauguin. In so doing, they—perhaps unconsciously—recreated the same problematic power dynamics of male artists painting female models, who are also exoticized along racial lines. As someone who deeply feels the need to be critical of how we approach art history, I cannot help but be self-conscious of what my favorite art signals to the people around me. Am I perpetuating the same hierarchy of art that I want so badly to dismantle?
These questions persist. Yet, in Vuillard’s paintings, I see the tumbling haze of my childhood memories transposed onto a world I have never known. The painted swirl of a woman’s hand moving, mending, making. Her hand caresses the hem of the skirt of my school uniform from when I was seven. The hand pats my head with delight. It remarks how much I’ve grown, so quickly that it cannot keep up. It cradles my cheek in a caress that I craved, in a caress that I loved. I am learning to dismantle all that I know about art; I am discovering artists previously hidden in history. All this is true, and yet still I know this other, earnest truth: that Vuillard holds up threads of time to the light, granting me a familiar wonder I find impossible to resist.