To be absolutely honest, I wasn’t really aware of Félix Vallotton, let alone of any of his pictures, until very recently. A few years ago I read ‘Keeping an Eye Open’, Julian Barnes’ excellent collection of essays on (mostly French) art, but his chapter on Vallotton hadn’t really stayed with me simply because, apart from the four reproductions in the book, I wasn’t conscious of having ever seen any of the Swiss-born artist’s paintings or prints. So when the Royal Academy of Arts announced its exhibition ‘Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet’ I wasn’t altogether sure whether I’d go along. I’m writing this now to say I’m extremely glad that I did, and that I’d encourage you, if you’re dithering about it as I was, to go along too.
We shouldn’t feel too shamefaced about not knowing about Vallotton or his work. As Barnes wrote in his book, published as recently as 2015: ‘In Britain he is not so much the Forgotten Nabi as the Unknown Nabi. [Vallotton, a friend of Vuillard and Bonnard, was known in Paris as ‘the foreign Nabi’.] There has never been a public exhibition of his paintings in this country; though in 1976 there was a touring Arts Council show of his woodcuts… The main holdings of his work are in the major Swiss cities, and at the Musée d’Orsay; elsewhere, you will rarely come across more than a couple of his pictures hanging together.’ Which is why, of course, it makes sense to head on down to Piccadilly sometime before the current exhibition closes in September.
I won’t go into too much detail about Vallotton’s life and work here as you can easily find out more online. Suffice to say that he was born in Lausanne in 1865, and moved to Paris in 1882 to study painting. He achieved some success with early naturalist paintings like Self Portrait at the Age of Twenty (Autoportrait à lâge de vingt ans, 1885), but in 1891 things began to change significantly he exhibited in the Salon des Indépendants and produced his first woodcuts. A couple of years later he became associated with the Nabis and began contributing to the literary journal La Revue blanche, whose regular illustrator he would soon become. In 1899 he married the widowed Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques, daughter of a prominent art-dealer, which meant that he no longer needed to rely on printmaking as a source of finance, and could concentrate instead on painting. Prolific, he remained successful and respected until his death in 1925, the day after his sixtieth birthday. He painted portraits and nudes, interiors and exteriors, landscapes and still lives, and was very adept at evoking the tensions and hypocrisies of life among the Parisian bourgeoisie during ‘la Belle Epoque; a dark, sardonic, satirical wit and an awareness of life’s injustices were also at play in much of his work, such that anarchist journals had solicited contributions in his printmaking years. Oh, and he also did a little sculpture, wrote art criticism, three plays and three novels. But it’s the pictures for which he is best remembered today. Or will be, one hopes, after this exhibition.
Perhaps the most immediately impressive works in the RA show are the prints, which are frankly extraordinary. There are marvellously dynamic street scenes (often depicting crowds, sometimes of protesters in conflict with gendarmes), some beautifully intimate, atmospheric pictures of musicians practising at home – see The Cornet (Le Piston, 1896), above – and a quite superb series entitled Les Intimités – see Money (L’Argent, 1898), at the very top of this piece – which depicts a range of illicit and/or tense moments between spouses and lovers. Similarly problematic encounters become the subjects of very fine paintings like The Lie (La Mensonge, 1897) or The Visit (La Visit, 1899), in which Vallotton’s imaginative use of colour and space is as distinctive, original and impressive as his audacious, sometimes almost abstract use of black and white in the woodcuts. And then there are the more seemingly ‘classical’ works – like The White and the Black (La Blanche et la Noire, 1913) or Red Peppers (Poivrons rouges, 1915) – in which his technical expertise as a painter is on brilliant display. Even here, however, in his most naturalistic representations of people and objects, there always remains a sense of mystery; even perhaps, as the less-than-sexy exhibition subtitle would have it, of disquiet. What are we seeing, exactly? What happened – or will happen – beyond this brief moment in time?
The RA show is (mercifully) not one of those massive blockbuster exhibitions – about six or seven rooms, that’s all – but it is packed with riches. I found myself revisiting many of the pictures over and over again, mesmerised by how much Vallotton could reveal, suggest and imply though the simplest, starkest of means. He had a very sure grasp not only of movement, form and colour, but of narrative. Oh yes, and scale, too. Few of these pictures are large; indeed, many are modest in size, especially the prints. But they really are just right, in containing so very much for us to enjoy… and to think about.
‘Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet’ continues at London’s Royal Academy of Arts until 29 September 2019. Pictures courtesy of the Royal Academy of Arts and other galleries which have been wise enough to collect Vallotton’s work. More details online.