If only for the inclusion of The White and the Black (1913), the retrospective of the Swiss painter and printmaker Félix Vallotton (1865–1925) merits its subtitle. The Met has given special emphasis to the painting, and can you blame it for doing so? It’s an arresting picture. Toward the right of the canvas, a black woman, clad in blue and smoking a cigarette, sits pensively on a bed. The object of her attention is a reclining white woman who is nude and—what exactly? Sleeping, maybe; posing, perhaps. (Her posture suggests a degree of self-awareness.) The title conjures a Whistlerian focus on color harmonies, and the image bears a knowing resemblance to Manet’s Olympia (1863). The relationship between the two women is provocative in its ambiguity. Was Vallotton, a committed leftist and anarchist sympathizer, commenting on class divide—exploring unstated tensions between mistress and servant? He didn’t leave a paper trail regarding intent; the exhibition catalogue is mum on the subject. We are on surer footing in guessing that the curators are keying into contemporary woke culture by bestowing a prominent berth to The White and the Black.
The exhibition should pique the interest of those with a taste for idiosyncratic talent and fin de siècle culture.
As a feat of painting, The White and the Black owes nothing to Whistler, only nods to Manet, and strays far afield from Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard, both of whom Vallotton counted as friends. Paul Gauguin is the nearest correlative, partly for the confluence of eroticism and race, mostly for the elasticity and import given to color—the expanse of sea green serving as the backdrop, especially. That, and the painting isn’t . . . good. Or, rather, not as good as it portends. The longer one stays with The White and the Black the more its shortcomings are revealed. The nude feels as if she has been airlifted from another galaxy. (As a variation on Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus, it likely was.) The concomitant disconnect suggests that we’re looking at a painter who hasn’t altogether mastered the intricacies of pictorial space. The disquieting thing about “Painter of Disquiet” is, in fact, how consistently Vallotton misses the mark set by his not inconsiderable ambitions. The critic and artist Patrick Heron memorably dubbed Gauguin a “great bad painter.” Vallotton doesn’t rank that high. Still, the exhibition should pique the interest of those with a taste for idiosyncratic talent and fin de siècle culture.
Born in Lausanne to a middle-class Protestant family, the sixteen-year-old Vallotton forsook his studies in Greek and Latin, heading, instead, to Paris in order to pursue art. He enrolled at the Académie Julian and haunted the galleries of the Louvre, becoming enamored with the paintings of da Vinci, Dürer, and Ingres. With a boost from the painter Jules Lefebvre, his teacher at the Académie, Vallotton’s work was exhibited at the Salon des Champs-Élysées in 1885. It wasn’t long before the young artist began exploring less traditional byways. Working as an art critic for the Gazette de Lausanne, Vallotton singled out Henri Rousseau for special praise, and he began doing woodcut illustrations for a variety of periodicals. These caught the collective eye of the Nabis, and Vallotton was invited to join a group that counted among its members Vuillard, Bonnard, and Maurice Denis. Subsequently ensconced within the Parisian avant-garde, Vallotton exhibited in the Salon des Indépendants and socialized with the likes of Félix Fénéon, Gertrude Stein, Paul Verlaine, and Thadée Natanson, the publisher of the influential literary magazine La Revue blanche. Radical politics were a continuing fascination for Vallotton, albeit one tempered by his marriage to Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques, a widow of considerable wealth and influence.
Vallotton’s work for the popular press generated notoriety and won admiration. A critic of the time dubbed him the “Baudelaire of wood-engraving.” As a presumed nod to this honorific, the Met exhibition opens with Vallotton’s starkly configured black-and-white prints, largely of events taking place in the streets of Paris. Truth to tell, their cumulative effect is underwhelming. The high-contrast pictures devoted to the World’s Fair have a punchy appeal, as does Vallotton’s use of caricature. But the images are muddled—puzzle pieces that don’t snap into place—and one is reminded that the best cartoonists stylize form with flair and rhythm. The good bourgeois citizens of France, as pictured by Vallotton, are ill-configured stereotypes in compositions with little interior logic. Vallotton was better when sticking to nineteenth-century academic standards of figuration. Self-Portrait at the Age of Twenty (1885) and The Sick Girl (1892), though stiff and stagey respectively, are more convincing. Not convincing at all is The Five Painters (1902–03), Vallotton’s portrait of himself, Vuillard, Bonnard, Ker-Xavier Roussel, and Charles Cottet. A cut-rate Madame Tussaud wouldn’t settle for the dour and dusty mannequins Vallotton has shuffled into place.
A suite of prints titled Intimités, along with a group of related paintings, explore the quiddities of (mostly illicit) romantic intrigue: men and women, ensconced within well-appointed interiors, rendezvous and embrace. The hothouse atmosphere of The Lie (1897) generates erotic tension, and the stately tones sweeping through The Visit (1899) underscore the unseemly machinations of seduction. Composition, more than mise en scène, was a strong suit. Vallotton employed asymmetry to striking effect, and his cropped vistas and subtle shifts in vantage point add a welcome frisson of modernity. The Bon Marché (1898), a tripartite homage to the venerable department store, is remarkably gutsy in how a slurry of figures is clearly situated within a centralized area of darkness. Box Seats at the Theater, the Gentleman and the Lady (1909) is a study in structural concision and skewed geometry that would have made Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec smile—Guy Pène du Bois, too. And that’s the problem: the work can’t help but recall better painters. The Met’s decision to hang Vallotton’s portrait of Gertrude Stein side by side with Picasso’s depiction of the poet and writer points to how relatively stolid and unadventurous Vallotton was as an artist. The oeuvre, though not without its diversions, makes for a bumpy ride. “Painter of Disquiet” is best considered a curiosity that’s never quite as curious as it wants to be.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 5, on page 58
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