24 December 2013

Paris Exhibitions (1) Vallotton

Two exhibitions currently at the Grand Palais in Paris are coming to a close early in 2014 but both will transfer elsewhere. This post might therefore remain of interest, as could the next about Georges Braque.

Félix Vallotton: The Fire Under the Ice (Le feu sous la glace

If an opinion poll were to ask people in the UK to name an artist beginning with ‘V’, the most frequent answers would probably include Van Gogh (if he weren’t disallowed as a ‘G’, and on that basis, hopefully Van Dyke), Vermeer and, it has to be admitted, Vettriano, but I doubt if many would come up with Vallotton. Félix Vallotton (1865 – 1925) was born a Swiss citizen in Lausanne but moved to Paris when he was 17 to pursue a career as painter, engraver, writer and art critic. Successful in his twenties, he took up French nationality in 1900. Perhaps because he is not easily linked with any particular artistic movement, apart from an association with Les Nabis in the 1890s, and because so many of his works are now in only one museum in his hometown, his work is not often exhibited or well-known.

The Grand Palais show explores, and goes some way to justify, the hypothesis of its title that beneath Vallotton’s cool analytical style of painting, there were often darker preoccupations and sexuality. The curators, instead of a chronological approach, have addressed 10 themes, examples being Flattened Perspectives, Female Duets, Icy Erotism, This is War! In practice this means that works produced at the same time are widely separated in the show. The consequent disruption of sequence in a retrospective can be justified if such themes are sufficiently coherent – I’m not sure that was the case here. On the other hand, the conjunction of themed works is necessary to advance the proposition that the “fire” is close to the surface.

Vallotton’s skill and objectivity seem to be particularly evident in his portraits. Gertrude Stein, 1907 (above left) makes an interesting contrast with Picasso’s much better-known work of 1912 (at the Grand Palais two years ago), although was much less appreciated by the sitter (she called Vallotton “a Manet for the impecunious”), and shows a precision which was already well-developed 20 years earlier in Félix Jasinski tenant son chapeau (Félix Jasinski holding his hat, above right). An example of a Nabi painting with its marked perspective and planes of colour is Laveuses à Étretat (Washerwomen at Étretat, 1899, below left) although this would remain one of his styles after he moved away from the group, for example in La loge de théâtre, le monsieur et la dame, (The theatre box, the gentleman and the lady 1909, poster above). Vallotton’s ability as a wood-engraver influenced by Japanese prints is apparent in La Paresse (Sloth, 1896, below right), one of his Intimités - unsentimental views of contemporary Parisian life.

The Grand Palais exhibition includes numerous examples of Vallotton’s nude studies, for example Le Repos des modèles (Models resting, 1905, below)

and Le Bain au soir d’été (Bathing on a summer’s evening, 1892-93, below), which, at 1 metre by 1.3 metres, provides even more for the viewer to take in than the image below might suggest and leaves one wondering just what was in Vallotton’s mind when he painted it.

The exhibition reveals other aspects of this complex man’s life including his marriage to a widow with three children, his interest in photography and his reaction to the destruction of the First World War (Verdun, 1917 below) which seems to bridge Nabi and Futurist styles.

Félix Vallotton: The Fire Under the Ice continues at the Grand Palais until 20 January 2014 and will be at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam from 14 February to 1 June and at the Mitsubishi Museum, Tokyo from 14 June to 23 September.

(modified 26 December)

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