by Roderick Conway Morris

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Metropolitan, New York
La Visite by Félix Vallotton, 1899

Painter of Disquiet

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 19 July 2019


The Swiss artist F7eacute;lix Vallotton (1865-1925) was a paradoxical figure. Having moved to Paris from Lausanne at the age of 16 to study art, he became a leading figure in avant-garde circles. He was a key contributor in the revival of woodblock prints as original art works in themselves and did hundreds of his distinctive prints and drawings for radical journals and publications. But he remained resolutely immune to stylistic trends in avant-garde art, from Impressionism and Fauvism, to Futurism and Cubism.

The only movement he became loosely associated with was the Nabis (Prophets), but although he was personally close to Bonnard and Vuillard, two of the group's leading lights, he was always artistically apart from them. And the fact that Vallotton does not easily fit into any conventional narrative about modern art has subsequently impeded wider appreciation of his work. However, 'Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet', curated by Ann Dumas, Dita Amory, Katia Poletti and Anna Testar, will surely go a long way in reviving interest in this remarkable artist.

Vallotton's early heroes were Holbein, Dürer and the 17th-century Dutch masters, and his first oil portraits, still-lifes and interiors display an almost startling mastery of traditional technique. But it was his skills as an engraver and etcher that at first made it possible to earn his living as an artist and then, in the early 1890s, to branch out into his own utterly distinctive woodblock prints.

He used these to depict the full panoply of Parisian life, from street and café scenes to traffic accidents and riots, almost invariably with a sharp satirical edge. These culminated in his famous 'Intimacies' series, depicting illicit rendezvous and adulterous trysts, exposing in stark black and white the dark side of the City of Light and the hypocrisies of bourgeois Paris society.

At the same time, his paintings, too, took a radical change in direction. They often depict similar scenes, in luridly colourful bourgeois interiors, crowded with rather menacing furniture that symbolically hems in the protagonists.

In 1899 Vallotton married a wealthy widow, Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques, and within five years had more or less given up printmaking to devote himself to painting, to the dismay of admirers of his graphic works.

Most of these paintings were nudes, landscapes and some hyper-realistic still lifes. Many of them appeared rather conventional, which led to their being dismissed by contemporary critics. But true to Vallotton's lifelong form, they are infused with edgy, disturbing elements that in more recent times have invited comparison to the works of the American painter Edward Hopper and filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock - and earned these later works a timely reevaluation for their striking and thought-provoking qualities.

FÉlix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet; Royal Academy, London; 30 June - 29 September 2019

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024