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Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet

Royal Academy – until 29 September

When you visit, it won’t take you long to understand the subtitle of this exhibition. Even in his earliest works, Félix Vallotton displayed a unique, mysterious and disorienting vision. Born in Switzerland, in 1865, he moved to Paris at age 16 to study art in the very epicentre of cultural innovation and political unrest. He was not particularly attracted by the experimentation of contemporary movements, such as Impressionism, and preferred the realistic approach and painstaking detail of the Northern European tradition. His early works are stylistically incredibly accomplished. Almost to excess. The amount of detail, whether is The Coffee Service (1887) or Self-portrait at the Age of Twenty, draws you in like a magnet, and loses you at the same time. Instead of admiring the beauty of the work, it makes you wonder. Why am I looking at this coffee pot? Who is drinking the coffee? Why is young Félix looking so confident in his self-portrait? The Sick Girl (1892), the last painting in the ‘Early Work’ room, is almost like a film frame of a scary movie. A maid enters the room of a sick young woman, carrying a tray with a hot drink, but she has a distant expression, and doesn’t make eye-contact with the patient. Oddly, the patient is facing the wall. The bedside table is full of medicines and bottles, reminiscent of an apothecary, in which we see reflected a hidden window, a tribute to the Dutch tradition, but also a hint that there is more here than meets the eye. This is a frozen moment in a narration that makes us wonder what has happened before and what is about to happen. We can see echoes of this suspended atmosphere in the work of Edward Hopper. The Sick Girl marks the end of the artist’s first realistic period. (He will resume this style in later portraits and interiors.) At his school, the Académie Julian, Vallotton was introduced to printmaking – and to the Bohemian life of Montmartre – by his teacher and mentor Charles Maurin. At the Académie he also met key members of the Nabis, an avant-guarde group of young artists, such as Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard. They were striving for simpler lines and deeper psychology, and were greatly influenced by Symbolism, Paul Gauguin, and Japanese woodcuts. Inspired and supported by the group, Vallotton abandoned his (hyper) realistic approach and turned his acute, yet detached, eye for human fallacies, into a more streamlined, bald and cartoony style, that brought him great fame as illustrator and satirist of the Parisian bourgeois life. The RA exhibition – the first of the artist’s work since 1976 – displays around 100 paintings and prints, arranged in thematic sections – printmaking and the early Nabi, late Nabi, domestic life and outdoor scenes, social scenes, nudes, landscapes, still-lifes and war. Each room is full of intriguing images, often characterised by stark contrasts of darkness and light. Despite the simple forms and flattened perspective, his characters retain dynamism and expression, see for instance the faces of the audience at the firework display in the series of woodcuts for the World’s Fair (central vitrine). The influence of Japanese prints informs the stylization of some of the oil paintings too, such as the dreamy Moonlight (1895). Particularly interesting is The Waltz (1893), where blurry skaters float over the ice. There is something photographic in the composition, with the close-up head of an ecstatic female skater in the foreground, which appears in focus compared to the background. Later, Vallotton made regular use of photography to compose his paintings. The prints, with their wide areas of black backgrounds and silhouettes seem inspired by shadow plays, but also by the travelling art of the silhouette cutters, and the techniques employed both in the woodcuts and the zincographs, are innovative and extraordinary. In the oil paintings, patches of bright light, from the sun or artificial lamps, offer an equivalent to the clever balance of spaces. In 1899 Vallotton married Gabrielle Rodrigues-Hénriques, the widowed daughter of one of the most successful art dealers in Europe, acquiring a financial stability that enabled him to leave commercial illustration to concentrate on painting his new domestic life. But a sense of disquiet continued to permeate the seemingly innocent family scenes. A wonderful example is The Ball (1899), an aerial view of a little girl playing with a ball, surrounded by looming dark trees, which is worthy of, and probably inspired, Alfred Hitchcock. The Visit (1899-1900) and Dinner by Lamplight (1899) make use of dark human silhouettes to create a tense atmosphere. A similar feeling of discomfort we find in landscapes, such as The Pond, with its ominous dark shadow, and the still-lifes, e.g. the detail of the red tip of the knife in Red Peppers. Thadée Natanson, editor of the cultural journal La Revue blanche, called his friend and contributor, “the very singular Vallotton”. And very singular he is indeed, with his fantastic mixture of irony, coldness, insight, and extraordinary dexterity.

First published in the East Finchley Open Artists August 2019 Newsletter - Click HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.

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