French Impressions: Prints from Manet to Cézanne @ the British Museum

The British Museum Department of Prints and Drawings

The Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum contains the national collection of Western prints and drawings, in the same way as the National Gallery and Tate hold the national collection of paintings. It is one of the top three collections of its kind in the world and home to around 50,000 drawings and over two million prints dating from the beginning of the fifteenth century up to the present day.

French Impressions

This is a lovely FREE selection of prints from the age of the French Impressionists, a wide ranging selection of nearly 80 key works by artists including Manet, Degas, Cézanne, Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec. It’s a golden opportunity to view rarely seen artworks by some of France’s most famous artists.

Divan Japonais by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1893) showing the dancer Jane Avril seated next to the critic Édouard Dujardin watching the singer Yvette Guilbert perform on stage, wearing her trademark long black gloves © The Trustees of the British Museum

But the exhibition is more than just a selection of images: it presents a fascinating and authoritative history of print making and distribution in 19th century France.

Print production The exhibition explains how prints – and in particular etchings – became markedly more popular in the 1860s among France’s growing middle classes, people with money but without the means to afford large oil paintings. At the same time artists became more interested in the expressive possibilities of print-making, a quicker, a more affordable, and a reproducible medium.

Prints reached a wider audience than ever before through the proliferation of illustrated journals and specialist magazines, as well as in portfolios commissioned and financed by enterprising print publishers such as Ambroise Vollard.

Manet After some explanation about the difference between lithography, etching, woodcut and engraving, the exhibition settles into a tour of characteristic prints by the forty or so artists featured, starting with Manet. He is represented not only by several prints but also by a copy of the enormous illustrated volume devoted to the poet Stéphane Mallarmé’s translation of Edgar Allen Poe’s talismanic poem, The Raven, which was produced in a limited edition illustrated with Manet’s striking black and white images, and signed by the artists.

Berthe Morisot Next to Manet are works by two woman artists, Berthe Morisot (who Manet knew and often painted – there are two portraits of her by him) and Mary Cassatt. Cassatt was American and moved to Paris in 1874. In 1891 she went to see an exhibition of Japanese prints at the Musêe des Beaux-Arts which had a profound effect on her. She immediately started making a set of ten colour aquatints which combine thin but distinct lines and delicate washes of pale colour and flattened areas of decoration.

The coiffure – fourth and final state by Mary Cassatt (1891) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Japonisme Which brings us to the influence of Japanese prints on French. As Japan opened up to the West as part of the Meiji Restoration, brightly coloured woodcut prints began appearing on the western market from the end of the 1850s. In 1872 the critic Philipe Burty coined the term ‘Japonisme’, meaning

understanding Japanese art, culture and life solely through contact with the art of Japan

The Japonisme section of the exhibition features a print of a crayfish, fishes and prawns by Utagawa Hiroshige from 1832, next to an earthenware platter decorated with a lobster by Félix Bracquemonde who made a series of 25 prints for the crockery service all based on Japanese designs.

Henri Rivière Nearby is one of the treats of the show. Artist and designer Henri Rivière was best known for his shadow theatre performances at Le Chat Noir nightclub (as recently covered in the Barbican’s big exhibition about arty nightclubs).

Hokusai He’s here because in the 1880s he conceived the idea of taking Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji as the starting point for his own series of views of the Eiffel Tower, as it was being constructed. Here’s the Hokusai print the curators have selected:

Tea house at Koishikawa. The morning after a snowfall by Katsushika Hokusai (circa 1830)

And here’s the Rivière: spot the influence! The Eiffel Tower prints chart the slow construction of the tower in thirty-six scenes, in all weathers including, as here, in heavy snow.

The Eiffel Tower under Construction, seen from the Trocadéro (1902) by Henri Rivière

You can see all thirty-six prints on this website:

Toulouse-Lautrec If they’d been popular earlier in the century, prints underwent an explosion of popularity in the 1890s. Advances in colour printing paved the way for the brilliant designs of Henri Tolouse-Lautrec among many others. Lautrec made a living by producing illustrations for the proliferation of publications in the 1890s which sought to capture the glamour and glitz of the capital, as well as for the explosion of nightclubs which Paris witnessed.

La Revue Blanche One of the most influential magazines of the period was La Revue Blanche founded and edited by Alfred Natanson, remembered mostly for its connection with literature, but it also included prints and illustrations, including the ones on display here by József Rippl-Rónai, Paul Ranson, Felix Vallotton and Maurice Denis.

Pierre Bonnard There’s a selection of prints from Pierre Bonnard’s first series of twelve prints commissioned by Vollard in 1899 and some really evocative colour prints by Édouard Vuillard. They’re simple Paris street scenes but half abstracted into pleasing designs and patterns. It’s not Impressionism and not Abstraction, but a pleasingly decorative half way house between the two.

La Pâtisserie by Édouard Vuillard (1899) © The Trustees of the British Museum

There’s a whole wall of French artistic heavy hitters: in quick succession you can see prints by Degas, van Gogh, Pissarro, Puvis de Chavannes, Renoir and Cézanne.

Cézanne The Cézanne is interesting: it is of Les Baigneurs, one of only eight prints ever made by the artist and a recreation of on his best-known paintings. In fact, the wall label tells us that Cézanne made at least 200 images of bathers, an obsession which is interesting in its own right.

Les Baigneurs (grande planche) by Paul Cézanne (c.1898) © The Trustees of the British Museum

I feel ambivalent Paul Cézanne. I loved him as a boy but the recent National Portrait Gallery exhibition of his portraits put me right off him, and I’m not sure I really like this image, no matter how famous it is. Maybe it’s because it feels like an image designed for another medium (oil paint) which the impresario Vollard had to persuade Cézanne to make, unlike the Vuillard which feels like an image which has been conceived and produced with the medium of print in mind.

Richard Ranft In a different way, the image below is obviously designed to take advantage of the defined lines and vivid colours enabled by 1890s print technology. What’s not to like about this scene from the circus by the less well-known artist Richard Ranft?

L’Ecuyere by Richard Ranft (1898) © The Trustees of the British Museum

A Swiss artist and former student of Gustave Courbet, Ranft produced many images depicting the daily lives and diversions of fin-de-siecle Parisian society. He was also a painter and illustrator, contributing popular images to many of the new journals and magazines. The acrobatic circus horseback rider was a popular subject, and Ranft’s version of it appeared in L’Estampe Moderne, a series of print portfolios, in 1898.

Gauguin There’s a brilliant double portrait by Gauguin – in the contrary experience to Cézanne, the recent big Gauguin exhibition at the National Gallery made me love him more and want to explore much more of his work.

Whistler But I’ll end on a figure who is a little apart from all the other artists on display insofar that he was not only not French, he wasn’t even European. It’s easy to walk by the three black and white prints by the American James McNeill Whistler on your way to the more brightly colours Toulouse-Lautrec or Ranft posters, but these relatively small prints from Whistlers series of pictures of late Victorian Venice, are wonderful.

Whistler was, according to the curator, ‘the supreme master of etching and a key figure in nineteenth-century printmaking. Declared bankrupt in 1879, Whistler accepted the offer from the Fine Art Society to produce twelve prints of Venice over a three month period. A year later Whistler returned and made a further 50 etchings, hence the existence of a Venice Set from 1880 and The Second Venice Set of 1886.

This is from the second set and the delicate streaking of the ink in the upper and lower parts convey the shimmering reflection of the buildings by a typically Venetian canal, making it seem as if the sky is as liquid and luminous as the water.

Nocturne: Palaces 1880 by James McNeill Whistler (1886)

Reflecting on the Whistler’s subtlety and sophistication leads you to compare it with the highly stylised works of Toulouse-Lautrec, the fine art works of people like Gauguin or Cézanne, with the deliberately bright and popular art of Richard Ranft , with the dreamy and mysterious works of Nabis like Félix Vallotton, or the intimate scenes of half-naked women bathing and drying themselves by Cassatt or Degas. Wow. What a brilliant, exciting and enjoyable array of the best prints of some of the greatest artists who’ve ever lived, as well as a fascinating selection of works by less well-known figures which are equally and sometimes more beautiful.

Had you heard of Paul Helleu or Jacques Villon or Armand Séguin or Suzanne Valadon or Charles Maurin or Ker-Xavier Roussel or Angelo Jank before? Me neither, but all of them are good, and some of them are surprisingly vivid and modern.

Angelo Jank This print is a startling image by Angelo Jank (1868-1940), a German animal painter, illustrator and member of the Munich Secession. He specialized in scenes with horses and riders.

It’s an illustration for Léo Desmarais’ work Les Miroirs, which is so obscure I can’t find anything about it on the internet. It’s a plate from the magazine L’Estampe Moderne which appeared in 1897-1899 as a series of 24 monthly instalments, each containing four original lithographs, like this striking one of a woman with a brilliant green parrot.

What is going on? Who is the blonde woman? Why is she holding an apple? And why is a brilliantly green parrot looming down at her?

La Femme au Perroquet by Angelo Jank (1898) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Strangely unlike anything else in the show and deceptively modern, it might be from the 1960s. The exhibition is like this, full of unexpected treats and treasures. And it’s FREE!

Curator

Jennifer Ramkalawon, Curator of prints and drawings, British Museum


Related links

Other Impressionist reviews

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet @ the Royal Academy

This exhibition is a revelation and a treat. Valloton made lots of immensely pleasing, teasing, entertaining, beautiful and slightly puzzling images, enough to make it hard to leave the show. Normally I have half a dozen highlights from an exhibition, but I wanted to take twenty or thirty of Vallotton’s images away with me, wanted to be able to revisit them regularly, especially the woodcuts, and so I bought the catalogue (which is currently selling at the knock-down price of £12.50).

The exhibition is in six rooms so, rather than reinvent the wheel, I might as well follow the academy’s structure, with comments and observations along the way.

Early works

Félix Vallotton was born in 1865 into a Swiss Protestant family in Lausanne. At 16 he headed off for Paris, the art capital of the world, where he showed prodigious talent. He rejected studying at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts and enrolled in the more informal Academie Julian. His early works are realistic and figurative in a way which completely ignored the avant-garde of the day, the (by now) prevailing style of Impressionism, or the various post-Impressionist styles which were on the horizon. From the start he went his own way, and his style right to the end would be realistic and, in many ways, deeply conservative. (Note, by the way, the large plain background to this confident self portrait; we’ll come back to it later…)

Self-portrait at the age of twenty (1885) by Félix Vallotton. Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts de Lausanne. Photo © Nora Rupp

The early Nabis years

The Nabis was a group of French painters who rejected Impressionism in favour of lofty spiritual goals, and were more aligned with the late-nineteenth century movement of Symbolism.

The Nabis (from the Hebrew and Arabic term for ‘prophets’) were a Symbolist, cult-like group founded by Paul Sérusier, who organized his friends into a secret society. Wanting to be in touch with a higher power, this group felt that the artist could serve as a ‘high priest’ and ‘seer’ with the power to reveal the invisible. The Nabis felt that as artists they were creators of a subjective art that was deeply rooted in the soul of the artist. While the works of the Nabis differed in subject matter from one another, they all ascribed to certain formal tenets – for example, the idea that a painting was a harmonious grouping of lines and colors. (from the Art Story website)

The Nabis’ most famous members were Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard. Valloton became involved with the Nabis in the early 1890s and their ideas produced a dramatic change in his style, as he experimented with non-naturalistic ways of playing with colour, pattern and form to try and convey the higher spiritual ideas the Nabis aspired to. Some of these are wonderful, for example an exquisite small stylised painting of a beach by moonlight, and a highly experimental painting of Parisians ice skating to waltz music, their gyrations throwing up sparkly fragments of ice which shimmer with multiple colours.

Waltz by Félix Vallotton (1893) Musée d’art moderne André-Malraux (MuMa), Le Havre, France. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

By far the oddest of these paintings is Bathing on a summer evening which combines all kinds of influences (from Old Master bathing scenes to the Pointillism of his contemporary Seurat, and maybe something of the naive style of Le Douanier Rousseau) to produce something very strange and ‘modern’. The curators point out the influence on many artists of this time of classic Japanese prints, which liberated Western painters from Renaissance perspective and helped them rethink the picture plane as a flat arrangement of lines and blocks of colours.

Bathing on a Summer Evening (1892-93) by Félix Vallotton © Kunsthaus Zürich

However, as the exhibition progresses you realise that early works like this are the exception rather than the rule. Or maybe that they were stepping stones towards his more mature and rather mysterious style. The oddity and ‘spiritual’ aspect of these Nabis works (if that’s what it is) become subsumed into a return to realism, but of a highly stylised variety.

Woodcuts

Valloton began making woodcuts in 1891 and quickly became an acknowledged expert in the medium, which was undergoing a revival across Europe. Changes in printing technology led in the 1880s and especially 1890s to a proliferation of illustrated journals and magazines.

(It was the proliferation of literary and popular magazines in London which led to the market for, and sudden florescence of, brilliant short fiction commissioned from the likes of Oscar Wilde, Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling. And in fact, Vallotton was also a writer, producing three novels and eight plays. He was also heavily involved in the theatre, designed stage sets, took photographs and made sculpture. In his best-known novel, The Murderous Life, the protagonist, Jacques Verdier, has a power which causes everyone in his path to die in a tragic accident. Vallotton illustrated the novel himself in the darkly humorous style of his woodcuts. All this is reminiscent of the black humour of exactly contemporary  English works like The Picture of Dorian Grey or of Aubrey Beardsley’s black and white prints.)

Valloton turned out to have a gift for woodcut as a form, being able to produce images which were entertaining, troubling, moody, artistic or humorous, as required. He became principal illustrator for the influential journal La Revue Blanche and, as such, came into contact with and befriended many of Paris’s artistic, musical and literary élite – Mallarmé, Debussy, Proust, Satie and so on.

‘This newcomer, who is not a beginner, engraved on blocks of soft pearwood various scenes of contemporary life with the candour of a sixteenth-century woodcut.’ (French critic Octave Uzanne describing Vallotton’s exceptional talent for printmaking)

The exhibition contains some forty of Vallotton’s woodcuts, arranged by series.

Paris life

I can’t find a figure for how many illustrations he created for La Revue Blanche but presumably it was lots. Included here are all kinds of street scenes including crowds caught in downpours and rioters attacking the police, schoolgirls laughing, swans in the park, a sudden downpour of rain, and so on. My favourite was a beautifully clear and precise image of a naked woman lying on her front on a highly patterned coverlet and reaching out to scratch a cat, titled Laziness.

Laziness (1896) by Félix Vallotton

Musicians

The Musicians series shows starchy Victorian ladies and gents playing the violin or piano or trumpet. The one that caught my eye was a man playing the flute but keeping a wary eye on a cat which looks like it’s about to pounce on him or his sheet music.

The Flute (1896) by Félix Vallotton

Worlds Fair

There’s a series of six woodcuts on the subject of the 1900 Paris World Fair, showing visitors gawping at jewels, having a picnic lunch, caught in a sudden rain shower, a recreation of a street scene in Algiers, a footbridge between displays, and, finally, a vivid woodcut depicting fireworks. All these illustrations are wonderfully vivid and characterful and fascinating social history.

Intimacies

Most famous is the series of ten graphic woodcuts he titled Intimacies. These portray the sexual mores of Parisians, and the moral and psychological intensity of late-Victorian affairs. Each one shows a scene fraught with sexual or psychological tension (I say ‘sexual’ – there’s no nudity; everything is implied).

Below is maybe the most striking and intriguing one, Money. What money, where? Is the man handing her money (doesn’t look like it) or offering her money verbally? For what? Sex? To buy her silence? Is she his mistress? Or an unhappy wife?

The curators point out Valloton’s striking use of black. It’s simple but extremely effective to have about two-thirds of the image, the whole right side, jet black. Thus the man doesn’t stand against a backdrop or shadow, but emerges out of the blackness. He is part of the blackness. All the others in the Intimacies series are just as strange and teasing and suggest complex psychodramas on which we are eavesdropping.

Intimacies V: Money (1898) by Félix Vallotton © Musées d’art et d’histoire, Ville de Genève, Cabinet d’arts graphiques

Vallotton’s extensive experience churning out woodcuts recording and satirising contemporary Paris life, fed over into his paintings. During this period they stopped being either the rather stiff portraits and still lifes of his first years in Paris, or the experimental paintings mentioned above like the Waltzers or Bathers, and became more like accompaniments in paint  of the contemporary social themes he was depicting in the woodcuts. Especially the Intimacies theme of the complexity of male-female relations, the complex lies and deceptions of the Paris bourgeoisie as they go about their affairs and infidelities. One is titled Five O’Clock which, we learn from the wall label, was the time of day when the Parisian bourgeois left their offices and went to visit their mistresses for an hour of pleasure, before returning home to their wives and families. Another shows a naked woman curled up in a very red chair, in a sort of defensive or foetal posture. You can’t help asking why. Has something bad happened to her, has she received good or bad news, or is it her usual comforting position?

Uncertainties

This is the theme or feeling which is present in his earlier paintings but comes more and more to the fore during the 1890s – which is that, although his technique remained pretty conservative (especially if you consider what was happening around him in Paris, with Picasso and Matisse just over the horizon), nonetheless, there is a very modern sense of unease and ambiguity about his paintings from the 1890s.

A good example is The Visit from 1899. Three points: 1. What is going on in this painting? Has she just arrived? Are they dancing? Or is he pushing her towards the open door at the left which we can assume leads into a bedroom? So is it an illicit visit from a mistress?

The Visit (1899) by Félix Vallotton © Kunsthaus Zürich

2. Note the bold colours. This is what Valloton had in common with the other Nabis: it’s a figurative scene alright, but all the colours are too overbright and simplified. It is this overlit colouring which creates the unsettling mood as much as the composition.

3. As are the faces. You can see the influence of all those hundreds of popular woodcuts, which required often cartoon-like simplicity of faces, spilling over into a simplification of the faces and indeed the outlines of the bodies in his paintings. It’s a painting of a real scene but all done with overbright simplifications of colour and outline which bring to mind, say, the style of American painter Edward Hopper. The clothes and decor have changed but the mood of lassitude or ambiguity, the troubled atmosphere between a man and a woman, are very similiar and above all, conveyed by simplifying the shape and colour of the figures, and leaving their faces blurred and shadowed.

Room in New York by Edward Hopper (1932)

Marriage

In 1899 Valloton dumped the Bohemian mistress he had lived with during the 1890s, and married Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques. This was an excellent career move in two ways. 1. She was the widowed daughter of Alexandre Bernheim, one of the most successful art dealers in Europe, and her brothers still ran the immensely successful art dealership. 2. She was rich.

At a stroke Vallotton moved from a garret studio with a mistress into a grand city house with a wife and step-children. He entertained. He became a good bourgeois and family man.

And his style changed, too. For a start he stopped making the woodcuts which had provided his livelihood during the 1890s, and ceased working for La Revue Blanche. Freed from financial worries he concentrated all his energies on painting.

A lot of these new paintings feature his wife, in a variety of respectable family poses, on the family sofa, or at the family dinner table. These portraits show the enduring influence on him of one of his heroes, Ingres, the painter of crystal-clear nudes and women’s faces.

But alongside these respectable paintings are others, also apparently sensible and polite, which nonetheless exude a strange unease and sense of foreboding. It is as if the psychological tensions he had investigated so ably in the Intimacies woodcuts has been driven underground to become merely implicit, barely implicit, only just noticeable.

The curators single out one particular painting from this period, The Ball, which shows a little girl in a garden chasing after a ball. What could be more innocent? And yet, when you look at it in the flesh, there is something very eerie about the way the shadow is creeping across the grass from the left and onto the gravel drive – almost as if it’s reaching out for her. And the darker shadows lurking at the bottom of the shrubbery above the girl. And something a little uncanny about the two figures in the distance…

The Ball (1899) by Félix Vallotton © Musée d’Orsay

This unsettling effect is much more obvious in a brilliant painting titled simply The Pond. A realistic painting of a pond, what could be more plain and simple? And yet (once again, more in the flesh than in this flat reproduction) once you’ve noticed the way the blackness of the pond water is seeping weirdly towards you, it’s impossible not to be a little worried by it. It’s like a still from the Disney film Fantasia, it looks like the shadow of the mountain coming to life, with big devil’s horns, rearing towards you…

The Pond (1909) by Félix Vallotton

Nudes

Also, from about 1904 onwards, alongside the many fully clothed and respectable portraits of his wife and step-children, Valloton began to focus his energies on the nude, the female nude.

If you realise that Picasso and Matisse were just launching their careers at just this time, it is astonishing just how conservative and traditional Valloton’s style was. If you do a quick google search of Félix Vallotton+nude it is astonishing to discover that he did so many of them.

Many of the nudes explicitly refer to the great tradition of Old Masters from his favourite, Ingres, through to Manet’s Olympia. In all of them there is a cold, detached, calculating air. The largest of the half dozen or so on display here is the wonderful White Woman and Black Woman of 1913.

White Woman and Black Woman (1913) by Félix Vallotton © Fondation Hahnloser, Winterthour

  1. The clarity There is hardly any shadow in the room. Everything is depicted in the exact crystalline light of Ingres.
  2. The technical virtuosity Look at him show off his ability to paint folds of cloth, one of the litmus tests of the Old Masters stretching back to Titian.
  3. Psychology In the Olympia of Manet the fully clothed black servant is bringing flowers to the naked prostitute Olympia, very obviously serving her. But what on earth is the relationship here, between the black woman who’s very casually dressed and – for God’s sake – smoking a fag!? All kinds of speculation is possible, the curators’ favourite one being that they are lesbian lovers, but it looks much more complex and weird than that.
  4. The nude The depiction of the white woman’s naked body is quite simply stunning. It is a masterwork in the depiction of fleshtones, and the way they vary across the naked body, rising towards her flushed red cheeks. Why are her cheeks flushed and red?

You remember me pointing out about the first painting in this review, how the background is a flat, bare wash? Well, same here. Once I’d processed the lavish sensual appeal of the naked body in this painting, and then wondered about the relationship between the two figures, than I turned to consider a third level or avenue of approach, which is to see it purely as a composition of colours – and surely the most striking thing is the huge size of the aquamarine wall behind both figures. Against which is set the black woman’s brilliant orange headscarf. And then her bright blue wrap, for sure. If it is a virtuoso display of folds and shadows in fabric, it is also, on another level, an exercise in big blocks of colour. Once I’d noticed this fondness for slabs of colour, I began to notice it in many of his paintings, and also link it up with his decisive use of solid black in the woodcuts. It’s an entire visual approach to see things as blocks rather than broken up into the multitude of details.

Landscapes

In 1909, alongside his prodigious output of nudes, Valloton turned his attention to landscapes. As with so many of his earlier depictions of people, these were done in a simplified style which often brought out the basic shapes underlying messy nature and, as with the nude above, done in primary or elemental colours.

A good example is The Pond, above, with its radical simplification of pond, grass, shrubs and trees to create an almost cartoon-like image.

He called them composed landscapes. He had taken to using a box camera at the turn of the century and now it became a habit to take photos of a scene and then use that, once developed, to paint the scene from the simplified (black and white) photo and from memory. He dreamed, he said, ‘of a painting free from any literal respect for nature.’

The result was landscapes reduced to broad ‘zones’ or shapes of colour which recall the simplifications of the woodblock. And also hark back to the principles of the Nabis from a decade or more earlier, the idea that art needn’t be realistic, but was more a matter of finding the colours and patterns which replicated your inner feelings.

A late landscape which really got me was Last Rays painted at Honfleur where Vallotton spent many of his summers and where he made several versions of this scene of umbrella pine trees overlooking the Bay of the Seine. In its simplification and strong sense of design it subtly references the clarity of the Japanese prints which had so influenced him in the 1890s.

Last Rays (1911) by Félix Vallotton © Musée des Beaux-Arts de Quimper

A conventional artist?

But, also, looking round any of the rooms, I kept being amazed at how… conventional Vallottin is. It’s as if Impressionism or any other modern art movement had never happened. Towards the end of the exhibition, I began to realise why I’d never heard of Félix Vallotton before – because he stands so totally outside the classic narrative of Modern Art, and its core lineage from Impressionism thru Post-Impressionism, to the eruption of Picasso and Matisse, and then into Cubism, Futurism etc etc.

None of this seems to have had any impact on Vallotton, and if you look at his Wikipedia article, you do get the impression that many if not most of his paintings can be read as utterly traditional and ‘straight’.

Which set me wondering whether the curator’s attempt to rebrand Vallotton as the painter of ‘unease’ quite stacks up. There’s nothing particularly uneasy about the trees at sunset above, nor about many of the nudes which are just skillful paintings of naked women, often in not very flattering postures, but depicted with beautiful fluency.

Maybe it would be impossible just to stage an exhibition of Vallotton’s work ‘cold’ as it were; maybe it would come across as too conventional and, possibly, in some cases, kitsch, as reworkings of Ingres-style nudes and Flemish-style still lifes being painted in the 1910s.

Maybe the curators had to find an angle, some kind of modernist theme, to make him appear edgy and relevant.

The Great War

Then the Great War broke out. Vallotton was swept up in the patriotic fervour (he had become a French citizen in 1900) but was dismayed to discover he was too old (49) to enlist. Interestingly, the war sparked the decision to create a new series of woodcuts, a genre he hadn’t touched since 1900. Maybe he associated the woodcut with journalism, with the immediate depiction of a society’s life, with the everyday activities of its citizens, and so with the journalistic immediacy of the war and its horrors. In fact the images were copied from newspaper photos or articles before he worked them up into woodcuts.

The result was a series of six woodcuts, collectively titled This is War! and consisting of: The Trench, The Orgy (being a piss-up in a wine cellar), Barbed wire, In the Darkness, the Lookout, and The Civilians.

The Trench (1915) by Félix Vallotton © Bibliothèque de Lausanne – Cabinet de gravures et xylogravures

In their stylised simplification, all six are cartoon-like and almost comic. They remind me a little of the Great War cartoons of William Heath-Robinson. They certainly evince the kind of visual humour which characterised the woodcuts of the 1890s and which largely disappeared from his paintings after 1900. It’s interesting to think that it was there all along, this impish humour, but that he had consciously suppressed it in order to become ‘a serious artist’.

In 1917 Vallotton managed to secure a government commission to tour the trenches in the Champagne region, which led to paintings of the battlefields of Verdun, of ruined churches behind the lines and so on.

Haunted realism

In line with the curator’s thesis that Vallotton is the painter of quiet unease, they end with an image which combines everything we’ve learned so far. It is an astonishingly realistic depiction of peppers on a plate, summarising his prodigious gift as a draughtsman and colorist, and his reverence for the naturalistic tradition of the Old Masters. (Also, I note, the blank slablike colouring of the neutral background.)

But this dazzling work of photorealism was painted during the appalling blood-letting of the Great War, and the curators draw our attention to the knife. Nothing in the picture justifies the way the knife blade is half covered in something red. Is it blood, symbolising the immense bloodletting going on all across the once peaceful civilised continent of Europe? Or just a reflection of the peppers next to it?

Red Peppers (1915) by Félix Vallotton. Kunstmuseum Solothurn, Dübi-Müller Foundation. Photo © SIK-ISEA, Zurich

Disquiet or not?

Let’s weight the evidence.

The popular illustrative woodblocks he made for La Revue Blanche don’t display a trace of ‘disquiet’, they’re entertaining and very straightforward pictures of Parisians in parks or rain showers or at the Worlds Fair. But the Intimacies series of woodcuts are all about bourgeois guilt, hypocrisy and unease.

Some of the landscapes are just simplified landscapes stylised in the way he had made his own. But others, yes, some of the others are strange and a little… disconcerting.

And many of the paintings made during the 1890s definitely depict fully-dressed bourgeois couples in ambiguous situations. Or single individuals in rather… puzzling moods.

Of the half dozen nudes here, most are just paintings of women without their clothes on, highlighting the way women’s tummies or boobs can hang very unromantically downwards if they’re lying on their sides. But some of them hint at something a little more… mysterious and teasing…

So are the curators justified in labelling Vallotton ‘the painter of disquiet’? It’s hard to say. You’d have to review all 70 or so works on display here with this thesis in mind: maybe… And then are you allowed to review the rest of his works which are readily available online and most of which seem remarkably… un-disquieting…

All I can say with certainty is that this exhibition is a revelation of a painter I’d never heard of before – whose woodcuts are entertaining, charming and evocative – and whose range of paintings, from mysterious interiors to stunningly accurate nudes, through to the entrancing simplicity of the ‘composed landscapes’, from family portraits to slightly unnerving still lives – present an array of accessible, attractive, memorable and subtly haunting images. Wow. Very enjoyable. Well worth the price of admission.

Promotional video

Curators

Senior Curator – Ann Dumas,  Assistant Curator – Anna Testar.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

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