The Great & Singular Vallotton

Félix Vallotton: Le Feu sous la glace [Félix Vallotton: The Fire Under the Ice]

an exhibition at the Grand Palais, Paris, October 2, 2013–January 20, 2014; the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, February 14–June 1, 2014; and the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum, Tokyo, June 14–September 23, 2014
Catalog of the exhibition with contributions by Guy Cogeval, Isabelle Cahn, Marina Ducrey, Katia Poletti, and others
Paris: Réunion des musées nationaux/Musée d’Orsay, 287 pp., €45.00
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Musée Cantonal des Beaux-Arts, Lausanne
Félix Vallotton: Self-Portrait at the Age of Twenty, 1885

Félix Vallotton is best known for the pungent wit of the woodcuts he executed in Paris in the 1890s—images that often appear in these pages. Later, he gained a certain notoriety for the tart and confrontational canvases he exhibited in that city’s annual Salons. Born in Lausanne, he died in a French cancer clinic in 1925, aged sixty. “The very singular Vallotton,”1 as he was hailed by his patron Thadée Natanson, was highly productive. Besides his two hundred or more woodcuts, the catalogue raisonné of his paintings lists 1,702 items, ranging through all the traditional genres—portraits, nudes, landscapes, urban scenes, history paintings, and still lifes; the artist also wrote reviews, essays, novels, and plays. Yet despite his ability and good connections, this Swiss friend of Vuillard’s was habitually regarded in Paris as le nabi étranger2, a perplexing and anomalous player in the art politics of his day. The Grand Palais is currently presenting his work afresh in a large-scale, thematically organized exhibition.

Not much, it would seem, has changed. As I walked through the ten galleries, gasps, mutterings, and shakings of the head were all around me, and indeed I found myself participating in the shock waves. There are, in fact, various modes in which Vallotton reaches out to disarm the viewer—his woodcuts and his landscapes can be delectable—but the curators have not structured their exhibition so as to foreground them. Instead, fidelity to their subject compels them to jar your sensibilities with canvases of rasping asperity from the moment you enter. Let me try to imitate their courage, by plunging straight into one of the coldest of Vallotton’s cold baths.

The Rape of Europa, a canvas roughly five feet wide, was exhibited in the Salon d’Automne of 1908. When this annual showcase for progressive art had been inaugurated five years earlier, Vallotton was on the board, so he was assured of a place on its walls. In 1907 he had put forward a portrait of Gertrude Stein meant, it seems, as a riposte to the archaicized portrait painted by Picasso the previous year and now to be seen in the Met. Let me show you how it should be done—by looking toward Ingres: so the forty-one-year-old reproached the young contender, devising a forcefully compressed image of the American writer that Vuillard promptly dubbed Madame Bertin. Come 1909, Vallotton would give the Salon d’Automne Hatred, an allegory obeying the same master in the cleanliness of its two nude figures’ outlines, except that she with her Gibson Girl hairstyle, clenching her fist at her mustachioed counterpart, was meant to herald the feminist ruination fast approaching twentieth-century mankind.

But in 1908, Vallotton presented the hanging committee with a return to a classical myth formerly beloved of palace decorators. To his dismay, he found that they placed his grande machine opposite the same-sized Dessert: Harmony in …

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  1. 1

    Le Très Singulier Vallotton ”: chapter heading in Thadée Natanson, Peints à leur tour (Paris: A. Michel, 1948), p. 307. All translations throughout the article are my own. Additional footnotes appear in the Web version of this article at nybooks.com. 

  2. 2

    The epithet runs through all the literature and seems to have originated among the Nabis themselves: I cannot trace its first citation.