On ViewThe Met
October 29, 2019 – January 26, 2020
Does looking preclude belonging? Painters’ scenes are inevitably overshadowed by their own presence, their ruthless interpretation. That figure behind the easel—whatever agency it holds—must submit to the role of medium. How quickly objectivity spins into voyeurism, critique; the waxen picture builds, and its author withdraws.
So, consider the searing Self-Portrait at the Age of Twenty (1885), its subject meeting your gaze. The painter, Félix Vallotton, is said to have wept in front of Ingres’s pictures at the Louvre. Here he styles himself without props: the artist’s eyes are his only tool. The portrait’s intrigue is all in the delicately observed hair, each lock’s awkward adherence to the whole coiffure, and a budding mustache’s soft glinting in the light. Looking closely, overpainted adjustments are visible to the left of the head, disrupting the background’s even gray, as if the pressure of realistic depiction had manifested in some vibrating aura around the figure. Spend a while with this honest picture: from here on, its author will recede into the shadows.
Vallotton never belonged. His fellow Nabis dubbed him l’étranger (the stranger, foreigner) and his restless stylistic reinventions indicate a figure on the margins of that group of artists. The Metropolitan’s concise retrospective—an abbreviated version of what was shown at London’s Royal Academy—presents the printmaker and painter as a merciless interpreter of his environment and its characters.
The teenage Vallotton arrived in Paris from his native Switzerland to study at the Académie Julian, where he would meet Charles Maurin, a painter and engraver who encouraged him to carve woodblock prints. Vallotton earned his living partly through these prints, regularly illustrating publications such as Le Cris de Paris and La Revue blanche. His suite of ten prints titled Intimacies (1897–98) presented his most biting critique of the Parisian upper class, filled with scenes of adultery and deception. In The Other’s Health, two lovers revel in their desecration of the marital bed, and in Getting Ready for a Visit, a woman excitedly applies perfume while her companion sinks into the couch. These scenes are overwhelmed by their highly contrasted graphic style, indicative of the woodcut method, which Vallotton—inspired by Japanese ukiyo-e—revived in European practice. The inky shadows here allow for a certain brooding or unease, while sharply incised highlights portray their subjects’ stark actions.
Meanwhile, Vallotton’s paintings had achieved moderate success, having been exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants as well as the Salon de la Rose + Croix. The young painter had been invited to join the Nabis, a group that included major figures such as Paul Sérusier, Maurice Denis, Pierre Bonnard, and Édouard Vuillard. Quickly, his style shifted from precisely observed scenes to more experimental modes displaying a wealth of influences from his peers: synthetism, symbolism, an overall simplification of visual information.
Though he made a living satirizing the upper class, Vallotton would end up entering it himself in 1899 when he married Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques, daughter of the prominent dealer Alexandre Bernheim. With this financial security and access to the market, Vallotton focused more heavily on his painting practice, producing mostly interior scenes. These domestic pictures—in direct opposition to the steamy, anonymous scenes of a few years prior—display a cold detachment from family life.
In Interior with Woman in Red Seen from Behind (1903), Gabrielle wanders listlessly through a series of chambers, robes and fabrics discarded haphazardly along her path. Though this later interior is light-filled, its mood is no lighter than the woodcuts. Vallotton did not settle gracefully into his new life—just look at The Dinner, Lamp Effect (1899), painted the same year of his marriage. Vallotton is a silhouette from behind which we observe a family dinner scene with his new wife and two stepchildren, Max and Madeleine. The two children are painted with derision—Max stuffing bread into his mouth or yawning loudly, Madeleine’s face rouged and doll-like. Just as in the prints, these quasi-grotesque figures emerge out of the shadows. While fellow Nabis Bonnard and Vuillard built interiors out of nebulous fields of brushstrokes, Vallotton’s hand never quite relinquished its classicizing and graphic tendencies, swinging between soft gradients and harsh planes of color. Does this sense of Vallotton’s removal stem from his sometimes-sterile treatment of the medium?
I find myself drawn to the experiments that don’t quite cohere, like his strange response to Manet’s Olympia, The White and the Black (1913), or his 1897 Nude in the Red Bedroom, where the model was observed from a photograph rather than from life. Nothing really works here: the scale of the figure compared to the interior, the skewed perspective and lighting, and the strange, jaundiced color of the model’s skin. This inadvertent reveal of a photographic crutch might actually be more interesting than its flawless execution. Or, the severe 1907 portrait of Gertrude Stein, made a year after Picasso’s famous portrait, which the Met has moved from the European Painting galleries for the sake of comparison. (The comparison does Vallotton no favors.) Stein described Vallotton’s painting of the portrait as “like pulling down a curtain as slowly moving as one of his Swiss glaciers.” While Picasso’s composition seems discovered in the moment of painting, Valloton’s is stolid, bureaucratic in its modeling.
There are major successes here, too: the iconic The Ball (1899), and Box Seats at the Theater, The Gentleman and the Lady (1909), which contains the exhibition’s single best touch of paint, in the form of a gleaming white glove. But what emerges is a painter unable to settle into a comfortable mode of working, surrounded as he was by the radical advances of his peers. The show’s subtitle, Painter of Disquiet, indicates this restlessness and alludes as well to the innovations and unrest of fin-de-siècle Paris. What may be a better frame—and a more consistent through line in the work—is Vallotton’s sense of unbelonging. The reckoning between classicism and modernism, between realism and expressive interpretation, is ultimately at the heart of these pictures’ problems. Vallotton seems to state over and over that he cannot inhabit the scenes he depicts.
Even in his early masterpiece, The Sick Girl (1892), the illusion unravels: the scene’s proscenium, demarcated by the corner of a wall, is broken by the maid’s straightforward gaze, while the sick figure, her back to the viewer, remains absorbed in the composition. Vallotton inhabits an awkward space: part stage director, part voyeur. That these pictures consistently reveal their compositional ploys, drawing attention to the illusion’s flat plane, is perhaps their greatest strength.