Friday 13 September 2019


Yesterday I finally visited the Felix Vallotton exhibition at the Royal Academy, something I'd been meaning to do ever since it opened back in May, but you know how it is...
I only knew Vallotton from a few of his better known woodcuts, like the gorgeous La Paresse

I didn't know his much darker (in every way) woodcuts, like this one (L'Argent) from the series Intimit├ęs

Or Vallotton's lively Parisian street scenes, like this one, Le Coup de Vent

This exhibition has a fine display of his woodcuts, which make it clear that he was one of the very best woodcut artists of his time.
As for Vallotton's paintings, the only one I was familiar with was this strangely disturbing image of a little girl chasing a ball –

I had much to discover, and this superb exhibition opened my eyes to a remarkable artist, one who never settled long into any of the art-historical pigeonholes available – which is surely one reason he is not better known (this, I think, is the first major exhibition of his work in the UK). He vigorously resisted Impressionism, and, although he was one of the group that called itself Les Nabis (which included Bonnard and – an artist much closer to Vallotton in spirit – Vuillard), he seems always to have stood a little apart, as in this awkward, semi-parodic group portrait (he's standing at the left) –

The Swiss-born Vallotton began in thrall to the sharp naturalistic precision of the painters of the Northern Renaissance, as can be seen in this early, very accomplished self-portrait, painted at the age of twenty –

It shows too in such crisp and forceful paintings as La Malade, an early domestic interior –

Look at the play of reflections in the bottles on the bedside table. This is virtuoso stuff –

But Vallotton had soon developed a much looser style, dependent on flat masses of colour and blurring out of detail, that clearly owed something to Vuillard, especially when he turned his attention to domestic interiors –

Here, as so often with Vallotton, what looks at first sight like a cosy domestic scene becomes something rather unsettling – strangely disturbing indeed – as one absorbs it. This one shows his wife Gabrielle (a wealthy widow, to whom he owed his financial security) and her young daughter, but it is emotionally flat, and those reds (his best colour, along with green) are almost oppressive.
Here is another faintly menacing interior scene, of a woman looking for something (what?) in a cupboard –

  Vallotton's later career was dominated by his adoration of his artistic idol, Ingres, and his growing fascination with the possibilities of the nude. The trouble with Ingres, IMHO, is that he was a phenomenally brilliant painter, but a very bad model for imitation, not least because nobody could paint the kind of things he painted half as well as he did. Vallotton's austere Ingres-influenced nudes seem to me rather to prove the point, and their effect is generally chilling. However, among Vallotton's nudes, is also this extraordinary work, La Blanche et La Noire, clearly painted in response to Manet's Olympia. Whatever is going on here, this is definitely not a portrayal of a white mistress and her attentive black handmaiden. In the original, it's a large, powerful and deeply enigmatic picture  –

Late is his career (he died in 1925), Vallotton also painted stylised, pared-down landscapes, composed more in his head than en plein air. This one, of sandbanks on the Loire, is a good example...

And he painted some glorious, semi-abstract sunsets. This one really has to be seen in the original, and close up. It's a glowing, vivid painting that seems to engulf you as you get closer to it –

This is a terrific exhibition that I found quite fascinating from beginning to end, with no trace of the gallery fatigue that so often overcomes me well before the last room. It was, for once, a real journey of discovery. The exhibition is on until 29 September, so there's still plenty of time to catch it.

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