Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Félix Vallotton : Le feu sous la glace au Grand Palais

Félix Vallotton, Intérieur avec Femme en Rouge de Dos, 1903
I braved the rain and cold to see the Félix Edouard Vallotton exhibit, Le Feu Sous la Glace, at the Grand Palais last Friday, mainly because I anticipated everyone would be at the Braque exhibition. I was right; there were very few people at the Vallotton and moving through this impressively large exhibition was effortless.
Félix Vallotton, Femme assise dans un fauteuil rouge, 1897
The exhibition is organized thematically, and most of the paintings, while fitting comfortably in the theme of their room, could easily have been placed within a number of other rooms. For example, 90% of the paintings in the second half of the exhibition were depicted nude women who could well have been illustrative of every one of his preoccupations — the woman as still life, the woman as mythological creature, the woman as object of desire and threat, the woman as icon of art history—the naked woman is everywhere the subject and object of Vallotton’s paintings. Which is to say, the themes tended to make a lot of the work more interesting than it was.
Félix Vallotton, Le Loge de Théâtre. Le Monsieur et la Dame, 1909
This is one of those exhibitions in which the image that accompanies the publicity material, in this case Le Loge de Théâtre. Le Monsieur et la Dame, 1909, is one of only a handful of compelling images in the exhibition. The most interesting paintings —namely those of women, usually prostitutes, always fully clothed, in interiors whose perspective is out of kilter—are painted across a number of years. So unlike the more conventional exhibition of a single artist’s work, we don’t see his painting style or form develop across his career. Rather, we see themes that preoccupy him over a number of years, some more provocative than others, with no apparent development. As I say, the most interesting of the paintings depict women in domestic as well as public interiors, and spaces that are turned into theatres through the action that takes place therein.
Félix Vallotton, The Rape of Europa, 
At first glance, Vallotton’s works seem to be in the same vein as Edward Hopper’s. Despite some compelling complexities, and a lot of promised depth, he never fully delivers on the same level of innovation as Hopper. An image such as Interieur avec Femme en Rouge de Dos, 1903 is wonderful for it’s construction of space in which one room with bedclothes in disarray spills over into the next. Similarly, the painting is given meaning by the woman who, thanks to her red dress, does not belong to the environment of musty pinks and soft blues and greens. Her back to the viewer (as is often the case with the faceless prostitutes in other works) creates the only questions in the painting. Who is she, what is she doing there, has she said farewell or does she await her next client?

Félix Vallotton, La Chambre Rouge Etretat, 1899
Other interiors are interesting for their strange improbability. In an image such as La Chambre Rouge, Etretat, 1899, the lines of the objects and the room that define them are not lined up with the edge of the canvas. Thus, everything looks out of kilter, skewed. Here in La Chambre Rouge, Etretat, the lines within the frame are so angled that it looks as though the room is collapsing. The wall texts to this and other paintings claim more than once that these works are influenced by the advent and forms of photography. The claim is then corroborated by placing a photograph of the same scene next to the painting. However, the juxtaposition only serves to demonstrate that the relationship to photography exists at the level of content of the paintings, not in its composition or formal concerns. That said, it is perhaps the strangeness of the perspectives that the curators understand as linking these works to photography?
Félix Valloton, Poivrons Rouge, 1915
Vallotton is no great painter, and I came away from the exhibition also unconvinced by his apparent great contribution to modernism. That said, there are some scattered moments in the rest of the exhibition that reflect a certain conceptual sophistication. For example, the reflection on the side of the glass bowl in the still life, Dame Jeanne et Caisse, 1925 or the eroticism of red peppers on a plate because they carry at least as much, if not more charge than the woman sitting on a red chair in Femme assise dans un fauteuil rouge, 1897. However, once the exhibition reaches the war and mythological paintings, in which oversized naked woman do battle with almost gratuitous creatures in surreal sea and landscapes, the potential unravels completely. This deterioration of conviction and interest reminded me of De Chirico’s decline into mad obsession towards the end of his career.

1 comment:

Toby Lloyd-Jones said...

Thank you again for some fascinating posts in the last months. On this I agree, the still lifes are more captivating than the more 'serious' work. But, even they look weak next to William Nicholson, a contemporary. Best, Toby.