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A Swiss painter who was ahead of his time

After watching Félix Vallotton at work, Gertrude Stein memorably compared his painting process to “pulling down a curtain”. Vallotton, a Swiss artist, would begin at the top of the canvas, painting methodically in horizontal strips, until he had reached the bottom. Stein’s analogy captures Vallotton’s meticulousness. But it also hints at the theatricality that sets him apart: the uneasy sense one gets from his prints and paintings that something is going on behind the curtain, concealed from the viewer. It is this feeling that makes “Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet” – a small but beautifully curated exhibition at the Royal Academy in London – a must-see.In 1882, when he was 16, Vallotton arrived in Paris from the Swiss city of Lausanne, enrolling at the Académie Julien, an art school with a liberal ethos. At first he paid little heed to the avant-garde movements that were taking place around him; his early portraits and domestic scenes are characterised by a polished realism and exquisite attention to detail that owes more to the masters of the Northern Renaissance than to Impressionism. In his mid-20s he pared back his style, after falling in with a group of painters known as the “Nabis” (“Prophets”), who admired Japanese prints. Vallotton, often painting directly onto cardboard, produced vibrant Parisian street scenes in the flat, decorative style typical of Japanese printmakers. Unlike the Nabis, who included Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard, Vallotton focussed on the psychology of characters caught in moments of high drama. In a series of paintings on canvas from these years, bourgeois couples conduct clandestine affairs amid sparse, pastel-toned interiors.

These are subjects that Vallotton also took up in his prints. He was one of the earliest exponents of the revival of wood-block printmaking, a medium that had lain dormant since the Renaissance. Appearing in the pages of various anarchist and artistic journals from the early 1890s, Vallotton’s prints secured his fame as an artist, leading to his appointment as chief illustrator of the Revue blanche, a prestigious literary magazine. With supreme economy and biting wit, these miniature masterpieces in black and white depict Parisian society in flux. Crowds swell, outlined in rich black ink against the hatched pattern of the paving stones. Couples alternately bicker and embrace in their bedrooms, as Vallotton satirises the sexual power plays of the Parisian bourgeoisie.

An abrupt volte-face came in 1899. Vallotton married Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques, the daughter of Alexandre Bernheim-Jeune, a prominent gallerist, swapping anarchist circles for the well-heeled domestic life he had previously lampooned. With his newfound financial security he almost entirely stopped making prints, concentrating on painting. Highly polished, coolly detached nudes, landscapes and genre scenes hark back to Vallotton’s idol, the Neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, while anticipating the pristine surface effects of Surrealist painters like Salvador Dalí and René Magritte. As in his earlier works, however, the figures in these later paintings often communicate – through a sly glance or a turn away from the viewer – that sense of mystery and drama that gives Vallotton’s work its singular quality.


“Self-portrait at the Age of Twenty” (1885)

Glancing obliquely at the viewer, the young Vallotton exudes determination and self-control, belying his tender years. The sheen on his forehead and the mottling of youthful stubble show off a precocious mastery of realist oil painting. Meanwhile, the composition of the painting – the figure set against a plain, matte background, with no incidental detail to distract from the psychological study – nods to the portraiture of Northern Renaissance painters like Hans Holbein.


“Bathing on a Summer Evening” (1892)

With this painting, Vallotton made an abrupt and near-total break with realism. The 21 bathers, in varying stages of undress, are depicted in a radically simplified, almost cartoonish style. The painting met with public derision when it was first exhibited, while the painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec quipped that it would “probably be taken away by the police”.

Swathed in evening light, which comes from no obvious direction and leaves the figures shadowless, the scene takes on an unnatural, frieze-like flatness. The contorted bodies of the bathers – referencing sources as diverse as Lucas Cranach the Elder and Henri Rousseau – give the painting a sense of slightly unhinged eroticism, which reaches its fever pitch in the chaotic whorl of flesh reflected in the water.


“Money”, from “Intimacies” (1898)

Outlined in profile by the light of the window against the gloom of the room behind him, a gentleman looks intently at his young female companion. Her face is turned away from him; she leans on the balustrade of the balcony, gazing out of the window. Near her waist, the man’s hand is held up in a seemingly ambiguous gesture. But the title of this print – “Money” – alerts the viewer to the true nature of the transaction taking place.

The work is from Vallotton’s “Intimacies” series, published by the Revue blanche in 1898. As in many of these satirical prints, the vast expanse of rich black ink heightens the ominous mood. By rendering of the figures with just a few simple lines, the narrative of the scene is communicated as clearly as in a cartoon.

“Red Peppers” (1915)

The close attention to the wrinkled skin of the peppers in this still life is characteristic of Vallotton’s style after 1899, when he returned to realism. Yet Vallotton also introduces a note of menace: the blood-red butter knife hints at a narrative taking place behind the scenes. The work was painted during the first world war – though Vallotton was too old to enlist, the stories of depravity and violence that travelled back from the front sparked his imagination. His only significant series of prints after 1899 was a darkly comic one called “This is War!” (1915-16).


“Sandbanks on the Loire” (1923)

Completed two years before his death in 1925, this landscape is one of Vallotton’s final paintings. The soft, pastel colours and impossibly smooth curves made by land and water across the canvas lend the scene an otherworldly quality reminiscent of Dalí. Meanwhile, the empty boat in the foreground and the fisherman with his back turned to the viewer give the painting a sense of isolation and mystery – a claustrophobic stillness that cannot be dispelled by the gust of wind that passes through the trees.

Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet Royal Academy of Arts until September 29th

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