The Swirling Claustrophopias Of Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet
“…the deepest and earliest secret of all: that just as we watch other life, other life watches us.”
— Toni Morrison, “Memory, Creation, and Fiction”
The superlative Félix Vallotton exhibition recently at the Metropolitan Museum, titled Painter of Disquiet, was an enthralling view of the tension between Vallotton’s early anarchist political engagement and the abiding, rather staid (though always darkling) character of his oeuvre over his 44-year career.
The evolution and seesaws of Vallotton’s style in print and paint reflect this opposition: the riotous, undulant lines and engulfing black planes of Vallotton’s woodcuts versus the static, stolid scenarios depicted in his paintings, in which deep jewel colors — often a rich Roman red — create interiors of subdued luxury, a plain yet sumptuous world of private bourgeois lives played out in rooms. His close friend, Edouard Vuillard, once said, “I don’t paint portraits, I paint people in their homes,” and the same impulse towards fusing the model and the intimate environment rules Vallotton. Both painters are apostles of the spaces which enclose and seem to clothe their inhabitants, particularly women, who in the age of Art Nouveau were depicted as the ultimate animators and ornament.
Vallotton was born in Lausanne on 28 December 1865 to a Protestant family of French origin. At sixteen he determined to become an artist, moving to Paris where he studied at the Académie Julian from 1882 until 1885 under the instruction of Jules Lefebvre and Gustave Boulanger, the latter known for classicist and orientalist themes. Vallotton’s companions at Julian were the dashing Polish engraver, Félix Jasinski, and a mentor, the painter and engraver Charles Maurin, who would encourage Vallotton towards wood engraving.
Vallotton chose Julian over the more cutting edge Lycee Condorcet in order to have more free time from the classical humanistic and literary studies required by the Lycee. But he would come to know the cluster of Condorcet students who formed the “Nabis” group in 1888. Nabi means “Prophet” in Arabic and Hebrew, and the members were second-generation Symbolists — the progeny of Moreau, Redon, Carriere, and Puvis de Chavannes. Like these forerunners, the Nabis sought — following the poet Mallarme — to suggest their own and other worlds instead of reproducing all they saw with the meticulous technique of the Impressionists. To quote Christian Ruemelin’s catalogue essay, “Printmaking as Artistic Accomplishment,” “…for Vallotton, the suggestion of moods, fears and hopes became very important. He aimed to keep the settings of his works sufficiently unclear to enable the viewer to project his or her imagination onto the scene.”
Formally, the Nabis’ two great influences were Paul Sérusier, founder of the group, and his friend Paul Gauguin at Pont-Aven; both avatars of flat composition and pattern. Members would include Maurice Denis, Vallotton’s close friend, Edouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard and Paul Ranson, among less famous others. The group, curiously, first coalesced around a very small, near-abstract landscape painting Sérusier created on the lid of a cigar box and brought from Pont-Aven to the Académie Julian. It became known as Le Talisman.
But before Vallotton’s heady fin de siecle run with the Nabis and commercial success illustrating avant-garde journals with his undulating, almost oceanic woodcuts, Vallotton practiced a sober art that reminds me of Fantin-Latour. His first picture to be accepted by the Salon in 1885 was Self-portrait at the Age of Twenty, a severe, realist picture of the artist as a very serious, almost ascetic young man. The subject wears a dark suit against a grey background, his face in three quarter view with circumspect eyes turned to the right yet facing the viewer. The Latour comparison arises again in 1902–03 with Vallotton’s group portrait of the Nabis, The Five Painters, reminding me of Latour’s famous portrait, By the Table, of Rimbaud, Verlaine, and others, in equally somber tones, exhibited in the Salon of 1872.
Almost from the beginning Vallotton swung between quiet, exacting paintings of bourgeois relationships, enclosed in vividly colored rooms that exert a claustrophobic aura, and swirling depictions, in woodcut, of the social and political turmoil beyond those rooms, as well as more intimate scenes suffused with eroticism. Vallotton could proceed seamlessly from exquisite enclosures to very public melees. Although Vallotton did not embrace the delicate palette of Hokusai and Utamaro in his woodcuts, like them he cut his blocks lengthwise against the grain of the trunk. It was as a wood-engraver that Vallotton’s first fame was made, his prints proliferating in British and American as well as French journals. He appeared in the second issue of The Studio: An Illustrated Magazine of Fine and Applied Art in May 1893. In the English-speaking press, he would become known as ‘This Baudelaire of Wood-Engraving’.
In the early 1890s, Vallotton had unleashed a wild streak of prints showing frenzied scenes of street demonstrations expressing class conflict, including depictions of riots and police brutality. These proliferated in art and literary magazines and left-wing journals. There is the explosive La Charge, depicting gendarmes scattering demonstrators by beating them with sticks and brandishing swords. In La Manifestation, demonstrators are entangled in a centrifugal brawl; an old man reels backward from the crowd, top hat flying. While producing images of violence for the avant-garde journal La Revue Blanche, he created penetrating portraits of the poets Stephane Mallarmeé and Arthur Rimbaud, among others, for The Chap-Book of Chicago.
In 1892, Vallotton encountered the Nabis, Bonnard and Vuillard in particular. The Nabis were startled by the woodcuts Vallotton exhibited at the first Salon de la Rose+Croix in the spring of that year. Vallotton’s art of the mid-90s came to mesh with their decorative patterning of form and informal technique on cardboard. But he would be a peripatetic member of the group rather than a pillar.
Between the poles of Vallotton’s sober, ironic paintings of bourgeois life and his wild woodcuts, the Met exhibition contains an emotional heart of darkness, namely the series of ten woodblocks entitled Les intimités, created in 1897 for La Revue Blanche. Vallotton made only 30 copies, the stringent limits of the edition certified by his sawing up the blocks and printing a detail of each on a sheet enclosed in the portfolio. The figures are radically reduced to flowing near-silhouettes, often positioned at the edge rather than the center of the picture.
The series is an unflinching gaze into the duplicitous sexual mores of the bourgeoisie. Vallotton carves discrete, discontinuous scenes of betrayal and deceit, chicanery and money changing hands in the midst of a menacing tryst. The very first image is entitled The Lie, depicting a seemingly passionate embrace. The man’s eyes seem ever so slightly open and averted. Which of the two is lying? The seventh print, Five O’Clock, is apparently simply a clench between lovers, but “five o’clock,” a well-known expression at the time, distinctly refers to the hour when men would go to see their mistresses. In Money, the fifth in the series, three quarters of the print is subsumed in sinister blackness, out of which emerges a sliver of mustachioed profile, hand cupped under the bosom of a woman depicted in outline. In Extreme Measure, the sixth image, a man gestures feebly towards a woman who has turned away, her face buried in a handkerchief. The final image, of more serenely muffled despair, shows a man and woman seated side by side with only their faces and hands visible against a miasma of merged black clothing. I love its title: The Irreparable.
Les intimités belie the solid domestic tableaux Vallotton would paint following his advantageous marriage, in 1899, to the widowed Gabrielle Rodriques-Enriques of the famed Bernheim-Jeune family of art dealers. No longer needing the income from woodcuts, Vallotton ceased to make them, but their subversive spirit continued to inflect the subtly uneasy paintings portraying his new family. He felt no affinity for his two stepdaughters; the family members dine or sit together with discomforting formality, in silence, one guesses.
In his post-Nabi work, Vallotton would all but abandon the preoccupation with the “beautiful arabesque” so prized by his peers, and which winds or slashes with such daring across his 1890s woodcuts. After 1900 he turned to painting domestic portraits, quietly seductive nudes of models, often in pairs or groups (in homage to his idol, Ingres); scenes of public life ranging from retail emporia to WWI battle scenes; stark landscapes that come close to abstraction, and brightly colored still lifes notable for their realism. In 1907 he followed Picasso in painting a severe portrait of a seated Gertrude Stein; both artists’ interpretations of the writer’s formidable presence are on display at the Met.
Hanging at the entrance to the exhibition is a highly colored, highly provocative painting of two women. One, a sleeping nude, is white; and watching her, sitting alert yet bored, is a black woman in profile, wearing a green sheathe slightly darker than the vibrant blue-green of the huge expanse of wall behind them. Her hands are crossed loosely in her lap, her shoulders relaxed. She is smoking a cigarette without using her hands, which somehow serves as a sign of mettle. Painted in 1913, The White and the Black turns the tables of emotion and power on Manet’s Olympia of 1863, in which a black female servant brings masses of white flowers to a nude white woman reclining, wide awake, on a chaise longue. In Manet’s work we focus first on the glistening eyes of Olympia which stare out at us imperiously. Her servant stands, subdued against a curtain almost as dark as her skin behind the chaise, attending diligently to her mistress. I am reminded of the late Toni Morrison’s 1988 essay, “Unspeakable Things Unspoken.” Of black slaves being watched invasively by white owners, she writes: “One could even observe them, hold them in prolonged gaze, without encountering the risk of being observed, viewed, or judged in return.”
In Vallotton’s work, in contrast, the black woman stares at — or almost past — her white companion. She is clearly mistress of herself: sovereign; nonchalant. Her status is unclear, but it is certain that, of the two women, she is the one in charge. In today’s parlance, we would say she has attitude.
Vallotton lived-on until 1925, dying on December 29th, the day after his sixtieth birthday. In his long working life he not only captured the ambivalences of an age of unusual artistic and philosophical flowering, but painted and printed portents of how the chaos of civilization would swell and explode later in the 20th century. It is instructive to look at his work over a century later, during the apparent end of days we are living through now.
Vallotton’s paintings and woodcuts explore obsessively all the possible permutations of power and its reverse, but he keeps us guessing about who has it and who does not, among his subjects: mob or matriarch; department store or WWI trench; lovers and other strangers.
[a full slideshow of many of the works discussed in this review can be found at Riot Material: https://www.riotmaterial.com/swirling-claustrophopias-of-felix-vallotton/]