Félix Vallotton (1865 – 1925) could be said to be one of the most incisive chroniclers of Parisian bourgeoisie life. He arrived in the city at the age of 16 and would become a key member of its intellectual cognoscenti, joining Les Nabis, a mystic art movement whose illustrious members included Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard, and becoming a frequent contributor to the influential art and literary journal, La Revue blanche.
A new exhibition at the Royal Academy brings together over 100 of the Swiss artist’s works, including many woodcuts which are on display in the UK for the first time. Vallotton’s technical mastery of this printmaking style is immediately apparent. With staggering economy and precision, he uses black and white to capture chaotic flurries of motion: umbrellas sprouting in a sudden rainstorm, violent clashes between police and protesters, vehicular street accidents - all of these prints demonstrate an uncanny ability to generate narrative through simplistic forms.
Félix Vallotton, Intimacies V: Money (Intimités V: L’Argent), 1898. Xylograph, 25 x 32.3 cm. Ville de Genève, Musées d’art et d’histoire, Don Lucien Archinard. © Musées d’art et d’histoire, Ville de Genève, Cabinet d’arts graphiques
However, by far the most compelling stories are spun out of his almost prurient interest in the sexual lives of the bourgeoisie. His series Intimités (1897-8) ridicules middle-class sensibilities by depicting scenes of adultery and sexual subterfuge. His astonishing manipulation of black to create highly-suggestive compositions is most prominent in L’argent (1898). Two thirds of the image is engulfed in bituminous darkness. At the edge of this dark mass, however, is the silhouette of a man accosting a woman with his hand held out towards her. This subtle gesture brings the scandalous meaning of the image's title to the fore.
Vallotton doesn't limit himself to monochrome mischief. A series of colour works continues the theme of illicit love. This time, however, colour is used to create psychologically-charged compositions. These works burn with desire as velvety reds, emerald greens and deep indigos engulf the lovers locked in stolen embraces. Meticulous attention is also given to decorative details of interiors such as the patterns of rugs, upholstery, wallpaper, and curtains, generating a sense of claustrophobia which makes us aware of our intrusion. It is as this point that the poignancy of the exhibition’s reference to Vallotton as the ‘Painter of Disquiet’ takes hold. He invites us to take a peak at seemingly innocent scenes and unsettles us when we become aware that all is not what it seems.
Félix Vallotton, The Visit (La Visite), 1899. Gouache on cardboard, 55.5 x 87 cm. Kunsthaus Zürich. Acquired 1909. © Kunsthaus Zürich
After marrying the affluent widow Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques in 1899, Vallotton seems to loose his penchant for double entendres, preferring to depict his own domestic life with uninteresting painterly realism. After a brief spell of rather conventional nudes, Vallotton finally returns to woodcuts with the outbreak of the First World War. Deeply patriotic but too old to enlist, he moved to Champagne to continue his career as a war artist. In these works, satirical scenes of sexual intrigue are replaced with a terrifying tableaux of death and destruction. Again, the simplicity of his graphic language makes these images all the more devastating. For instance, at the first glance of Les barbelés (1916), the viewer might merely see a muddle of squiggles. Only a half a second later do they realise that these are tangles of barbed wire entwined around mangled bodies.
Vallotton's trenchant eye and penetrating style imbues each image with a cutting ambiguity, and it is this which marks him out as one of the most original documenters of Parisian modern life.
|What||Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet, Royal Academy review|
|Where||Royal Academy, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London, W1J 0BD | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Green Park (underground)|
30 Jun 19 – 29 Sep 19, 10am – 6pm daily.
|Website||Click here for more information|