Belle Époque-era Paris is often remembered for its thriving demi-monde, thanks to visual and literary culture that idealized the so-called vie bohème, which blatantly scoffed at how the stiff middle classes lived. Yet during his lifetime, Swiss-born painter and printmaker Félix Vallotton deftly demonstrated that everyday, middle-class people were just as worthy of artistic representation. The exhibition Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet, currently on view at the Metropolitan museum, showcases his wit.
Upon moving from Switzerland to Paris, Vallotton trained at the Academie Julian, and despite an affiliation with the Symbolist avant-garde group now known as the Nabis, he retained a form of realism influenced both by Northern Renaissance painters (ex: Peter Bruegel, Hieronymous Bosch), apparent in his stern portraits and the way he rendered different surfaces. In “Demijohn and Box,” (1925), we see how he skillfully renders the textures of different surfaces, such as a wooden box, an earthenware jug, and a translucent green bottle, complete with a reflection of a window: This is both a recurring motif in his output — as in the glassware on the bedside table in “Sick Girl” — and a nod to the Dutch 17th-century masters.
After Vallotton married a wealthy widow, his art changed: his new lifestyle afforded him summers in Normandy, and by using a Kodak camera (then a new technology) on top of sketching, he created his landscapes as paysages composés. After first sketching onsite, he would continue his paintings from imagination, which allowed him to simplify his compositions into broad zones of stark light and shades, recalling the style of his woodblock prints.
Visually and conceptually, his most striking work is perhaps “The White and the Black,” (1913) a reprise and deconstruction of Édouard Manet’s “Olympia.” In this painting, a Black woman — a figure that Manet rendered as a maid and reduced to the sidelines — wears brightly colored garbs, and sits assertively on the bed in the foreground. She smokes a cigarette and gazes at a white woman in the nude, who, unlike Manet’s stiff Olympia, is languidly splayed onto the bed; both of them are on equal playing fields.
It’s in Vallotton’s printmaking that his creativity is displayed in full force: his graphic language is full of negative space and curved lines and captured, with elegance and simplicity, the bizarre behaviors of the bourgeoisie. In “The Demonstration” (1893), he conveys the chaotic motion of Parisians caught in the middle of a political demonstration, a woman’s billowing garments act as a cartoonish, slapstick-like element.
It’s tough to form an assessment of Vallotton. Stylistically speaking, he lacks consistency; regardless of the time period, his works alternate between being either elegantly stylized, avant-garde, or academic. Thus, it’s easy to see why his legacy is not as renowned as, say Vincent Van Gogh’s, Henri Matisse’s or even Gustav Klimt’s. Throughout his life, he never developed distinctive brush strokes, traits, nor a fondness for a particular color palette.
Yet, what his work lacks in terms of stylistic continuity, he makes up for in, for lack of a better word, content. His street scenes expose the neurotic underbelly of a metropolis, while “Bon Marché,” his triptych devoted to the Bon Marché department store renders goods on display in exquisite detail, and even the domestic scenes such as “The Lie” (1897) portray an empty, yet disturbed society with dry wit, a tad of humor, and, crucially, no condescension. In a way, his paintings share similarities with works from Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Berlin-based series, such as “Street, Berlin” (1913), and exponents of the New Objectivity movement, as both depict lively yet soulless urban scenes and dwellers. One can only wonder whether his preference for realism in an artistic context that heavily championed avant-garde art is what set him back, given the poignancy of his content.
Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 5th Avenue, Upper East Side) through January 26. The exhibition is organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in collaboration with Fondation Félix Vallotton, Lausanne. The presentation at the Met was curated by Dita Armory.