Des Chats comme Félix

Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet (Royal Academy of Arts, 30 June—29 September 2019)

I had a grumpy wander around the Pierre Bonnard exhibition at Tate Modern, but it wasn’t doing much for me, or the crowd were getting in the way. Bonnard was part of a group of French artists, Les Nabis or The Prophets, who had mostly been to the Académie Julian in the late 1880s, and who were fans of Paul Cézanne and Paul Gaugin. Other members included Maurice Denis, Paul Ranson, Ker-Xavier Roussel and Édouard Vuillard.

Félix Vallotton had been born in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1865 and moved to Paris at the age of 16, where he also went to the Académie and was associated in the early 1890s with Les Nabis even though he rarely dabbled in the Impressionism that was associated with them. Instead, he worked in a kind of Dutch or German realism, with shades of Dürer and Holbein, always ready to show off the weight and shine of glass bottles and brass jugs. He seems to anticipate the work of the New Objectivists in Weimar Germany, with a similar sense of hinted uncanniness.

I couldn’t help but compare his The Sick Room to a similar composition by Munch. The patient is reversed, the bottle obvious, the nursing figure paused awkwardly in the doorway, as if uncertain whether she should come in.

“Will I get in the way of your painting, M. Vallotton?”

IMG_0023img_7876Munch’s version is much murkier, even scratched onto the canvas, whereas Vallotton’s art seems to conceal itself, whilst almost quoting something like a Vermeer interior.

IMG_0024Bathing on a Summer Evening comes closer to the sort of thing that was going on in Paris — a group of women bathing naked in a pool or pond, mostly unaware of his presence, a few seemingly staring in his direction. One of them is holding something and looks very pleased with herself – is it a cat? is it a dog? The painting was shown at the Salon des Indépendants in 1893 and caused a bit of a kerfuffle – these, after all, were contemporary women, not safely historical classical beauties. This is one of Vallotton’s digs or jibes at the bourgeois world, to which I return.

But nudes perhaps require a leap ahead in the clockwise perusal of the RAA exhibition. From 1904, much of his paintings was of nudes, nodding back to Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and Lucas Cranach in his compositions. Apparently, he painted 500 of them. Julian Barnes, writing about an earlier exhibition, says, “the fewer clothes a woman has on in his paintings, the worse the result. [… First] most of these nudes are dismayingly inert; they might as well have been sculpted from putty for all the life and breath they have in them. And second, they often do not even convince within themselves: they might, indeed, be nus composés, assembled from different women.” There is a strange sense in some of the things I’ve read about this artist that many of his champions aren’t convinced he’s any good.

IMG_0025La Blanche et la Noire (1913) is clearly looking back to Manet’s Olympia, but potentially more eroticized. There is a contrast between the reclining, passive, white woman and the seated, staring, smoking woman. We’re inviting to fill in the story here, as seems to be the case with many of his mature painting. In the background of some of these nudes – painted in his studio – there are other paintings visible, daring us to remind ourselves this is aren’t.

But this is to get away from his earlier career and his work on a literary review La Revue blanche and his career in woodcuts. These are striking indeed – whilst a series on the orchestra is impressive and features a cat, it is his Intimacies (Intimités) that stand out: black and white accounts of adultery of bourgeois men, in the twilight hour between work and going home to the wife. I say black and white, but he has the ability to fill the image with black in such a way that you can still fill in his figures. Some of them are also worked over in paintings – perhaps all of them for all I know – but I think that the prints are better.

Ironically, Vallotton did go home to a wife, and more or less abandoned satire and woodcuts (there’s a number of disturbing works about World War One). But in 1899, he married Gabrielle Rodrigues-Hénriques, who was the daughter of founder of the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Alexandre Bernheim. She was a widow and had three, one of the most successful art dealers in Europe and founder of the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune. The union brought to his household three children from her previous marriage. The woodcuts had brought him much money, but now it was wiser to turn to society portraits (and one of Gertrude Stein, which she apparently disliked) and in a sense the gallery would cushion their finances.

There are a number of interiors, some inspired by photographs, of family life – an awkward family meal where the stepdaughter clearly resents his presence, a girl runs across the lawn, menaced by shadows, a child sits at the feet of a woman. Rodrigues-Hénriques is often the model and it is hard not to read some resentment into her features. The emotion suggested by the exhibition is disquiet – the homely is also uncanny.

His Interior with Woman in Red Robe (1904) indeed has a woman, in a red robe, standing in a doorway in the next room, looking through a series of further doorways and rooms. It doesn’t have the full surrealism of Dorothea Tanning – see Birthday, for example – but there is perhaps the sense that the bourgeois respectability of what looks like a mansion is also a trap or a maze or a labyrinth. His colours anticipate Hopper’s later work, but I think there is also a dash of Hitchcock with red heads rather than blonde ice maidens. There is the nightmare of Woman Searching in a Wardrobe (1901), with a silhouetted figure crouched by a lamp at the foot of half a dozen or so shelves of sheets and tablecloths and so on. What is she looking for? Has she herself hidden it? Does she want this to stay secret? (There’s a painting from a couple of years later, Woman in Blue Looking in a Closet (1903) where there are fewer shadows, but the image of a woman from behind seems to be to invoke the horror films that were yet to be made).

In his later years, he took the uncanny out of the domestic into the countryside, with landscapes of Honfleur, Normandy, and the Loire. Apparently, he began with sketches in the field, so to speak, then composed the landscape back in the studio. A bosky pond offers various shades of green, what looks like algae, but there is a black area that is either a clearing in the water or the shadow of something … menacing. One of the landscapes seems to anticipate Rothko’s late painting which divide into two zones of colour. At the same time, he returned to still lives, with objects that could almost be picked up.

These are paintings that stay with you, that disconcert, that, yes, disquiet.



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