An exhibition of Swiss artist Felix Vallotton has opened in New York!
Vallotton cannot be classified and placed on ”one shelf”. The artist has changed a lot throughout his career. It is difficult to say in which field he succeeded more – in painting or in graphics. He closely watched Parisian life both as an insider and as a foreigner. And the way he subtly and masterfully reflected it, is incomparable with any other artist of that era”.
The director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art – Max Hollein, presented an exhibition of Felix Vallotton (1865-1925). An exhibition is called “Felix Vallotton: An Anxiety Artist” (Felix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet).
According to Hollein, the exhibition, which opened on October 29, for the first time in 30 years brought together key paintings and graphics of an outstanding and undervaluated master, whom many art lovers actually do not know.
The exhibition was organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art together with the Royal Academy of Arts in London, from where it came to New York, and the Felix Vallotton Foundation in Lausanne. It presents approximately eighty paintings and graphic works, most of which arrived in Met from two dozen museums and private collections in the USA and Europe. Co-curators of the exhibition were Dita Amory from the Met Museum and Ann Dumas from London.
Felix Vallotton was born in Lausanne (Switzerland), but lived most of his life in France. He came to Paris at the age of 16, studied painting at the Julian Academy (The Académie Julian), where his mentors were Jules Joseph Lefebvre and Gustave Boulanger. He enthusiastically watched the turbulent, not fading for a moment, life of the big city, becoming a regular in cafes and bars of the Big Boulevards. His black and white woodcuts, vividly reflecting the political, social, and bohemian social life of Paris, were published in literary and liberal magazines down to 90s. They made the better half of this exhibition.
As an illustrator of the avant-garde magazine La Revue blanche, Vallotton met and made friends with artists of the Nabi group (“prophets,” “chosen ones”), founded by Paul Serusier and existed until the beginning of the 20th century. He was especially close to Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard. They were united by plots of secular city life and a love of flatness, when large spaces of a canvas or cardboard were covered with paints of the same color.
This trend, which critics partially associate with the influence of the symbolist Puvi de Chavannes, marked the direction of European painting, which was significantly different from impressionism. By the way, Vallotton did not completely fit into any of the schools; there was a reason why he was called the “foreign Nabi”.
Irony of fate
As Dita Amory emphasized, Vallotton can be considered as one of the most notable 19th-century woodcut artists. His black and white xylographies of the 90s, masterfully executed in a conditional manner, close to Toulouse-Lautrec, depict street scenes, political manifestations, criminal stories, love quarrels, mainly on the basis of treason.
Being an anarchist gravitating to radical philosophy, the artist did not hide his sympathies for the disadvantaged classes and evil irony against moneybags and those who in power.
The irony of his personal fate was that in adulthood he entered the circle of those very prosperous bourgeois on which he openly chuckled at. In 1899, Vallotton married Gabriel Rodriques-Henriques, a wealthy widow from a family of major art dealers – Bernheim, and from that moment he stopped to be in need for anything – perhaps only for inspiration. He stopped working as a magazine illustrator, switching to painting for his own pleasure – landscapes, still lifes and nudes. He spent winters in a spacious Parisian apartment, and summer months in a country house in Normandy.
His favorite genre was “composite landscapes”, which he did mainly from memory. He released them from realistic detailing and gave them convention bordering with abstraction.
He also liked to paint interior courtesan scenes with two or more figures. Usually his characters were man and woman, connected by marriage or romance. He painted squabbles, relationships that are not simple and often fraught with an explosion of emotions. Hence is the feeling of unclear anxiety brought out in the name of the exhibition.
The canonical work, gouache on cardboard “The Visit” of 1899 from the Zurich Museum of Art, which is distinguished by its special grace of composition and the mystery of the relationship of the depicted couple. There is some constraint of movements and tension of poses that signalize the expectation of something negative, an attempt by a man to use violence. Some critics see in this scene the Hitchcock suspense, but perhaps this is from the realm of imagination.
Smoking and nudity
As Dita Amory emphasized, the highlight of the exhibition is the “Portrait Duel” of Felix Vallotton and Pablo Picasso. Visitors can compare the portraits for the first time shown next to Gertrude Stein, an American writer and patron of artists. Stein introduced Vallotton to Picasso when she posed for the latter. Later, Stein posed for the Swiss artist, resulting a portrait stored in the Baltimore Museum of Art. The Stein portrait by Picasso is housed in Met, being the pride of the museum’s collection of modern art.
“Vallotton adored Ingres,” said Amory. “And he created his portrait of Stein in a style reminiscent of the female portraits of Ingres”.
If you compare both versions, the work of Picasso speaks more about himself, and the work of Vallotton speaks more about his model.
At the entrance to the exhibition, the viewer will see one of Vallottton’s most iconic and controversial paintings “The White and The Black”, from the Museum of Art in Bern in 1913. A naked white woman lies half asleep on a snow-white sheet, and a half-dressed black woman, possibly a servant, sits on the bed and stares intently at the lying diva. The artist was clearly inspired by painting of Manet – Olympia, but changed the composition somewhat, moving the maid to the fore and adding a cigarette sticking out of her mouth.