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December 28, 2019

Félix Vallotton at the Met

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Philip Kennicott's rave review from yesterday's Washington Post follows.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art hasn't exactly given its best gallery space to the exhibition "Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet."

The show, which includes about 80 works by the Swiss-born painter, is spread between two galleries in the corridor space that wraps around the stairwell of the wing devoted to the Robert Lehman collection.

If you don't take care, you may miss some of the work.

And it is not to be missed.

The Vallotton show, the first U.S. exhibition of his work in almost 30 years, is one of the pure, unadulterated delights of this year's museum season.

It captures the mental and artistic virtuosity of a great painter who kept to his own path, saw the world in precise and unsettling ways, and had all the technical resources necessary to record his idiosyncratic insights.

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Vallotton is a familiar name, but his work is most often seen as a pendant to the work of others.

He is included in thematic and overview exhibitions, side by side with better-known and more highly revered artists.

He was, for a while, associated with the painters known as the Nabis — Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard, and Maurice Denis, among them — until the group of young artists drifted apart around the turn of the past century.

But while Vallotton was attuned to the radical currents in fin-de-siècle French art, he also was temperamentally an aesthetic conservative, an observer alert to the hypocrisies of society, and an artist as comfortable with the polished brushwork and precisely realistic renderings of old Dutch paintings as he was with the more emotionally volatile and abstract currents of his peers.

Vallotton, born in 1865, arrived in Paris from Lausanne at the age of 16.

He took up studies at the Académie Julian, which was liberal in its teaching, eclectic and relatively open, and included women, who weren't at the time allowed to enroll at the more institutional École des Beaux-Arts.

The Académie Julian was a crucible of the Nabis painters, with whom Vallotton began to be associated, probably around 1892 or 1893.

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The connection was based more on his colleagues’ appreciation of his daring style, especially his woodcuts, than on his direct embrace of their principles and ideals.

A self-portrait of the painter at age 20 shows a man who looks unlikely to join anything more demanding than friends at a dinner table, and even that with some reserve.

His short-cropped hair is brushed forward, his chin is a little weak, and he turns to confront the viewer with a wary look, perhaps suspicious, perhaps just a little shy.

He is dressed in a coat and wears a crisp, clean collar, not the uniform of a bohemian.

Four years later, he would marry the daughter of one of Paris's most prominent and prosperous art dealers, and the young painter would be financially, if not socially, comfortable for the rest of his life.

The Met exhibition, organized with the Royal Academy of Arts in London (where it was seen last summer), devotes considerable space to the woodcuts and prints made in Vallotton's early years in Paris, mostly before his marriage.

These are daring works, often full of large blocks of deep black with delicate white lines to demarcate the edge of a sofa, the ribs of an umbrella or the slight trace of light reflecting off a violin bow as a man makes music for himself before a roaring fire.

Vallotton made images not just of the consumerism of the age — the shopping, gallivanting and dancing in the Latin Quarter — but also street protests, clashes with police, a carriage accident, and murder.

Vallotton made woodcuts and prints in part to survive as a young artist.

After his marriage, he moved more to painting.

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Some of the painted works express the brilliant powers of distillation and economy that made his prints so powerful, especially "The Ball," an 1899 painting that shows a girl chasing a red ball across a patch of sand.

She is seen from above, and the top half of the image is given over to dense foliage that mimics the dark fields of ink in the woodcuts.

Vallotton's affinity with the Nabis is clearly seen here, especially their love of the accidental perspective of snapshots and the flatness and patterning of Japanese prints.

And yet the image feels more controlled, more plotted and polished than works by Vuillard or Bonnard.

The same fastidiousness is apparent in one of the exhibition's great moments, a side-by-side display (below)

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of Vallotton's portrait of Gertrude Stein (L) and the far better-known one by Picasso.

Picasso's painting shows a mask-like face in a great field of brown, making the writer seem strangely avian, like a carnivorous bird or winged dinosaur settled on a heap of rugged earth.

She seems to be wearing the same robe or housecoat in the Vallotton portrait made about a year after Picasso finished his in 1906.

Picasso captures an idea about Stein, her canniness, perhaps even a touch of her wily pretentiousness. Vallotton gives us a middle-aged woman (though she is still in her early 30s) comfortable in her skin.

In her "Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas," Stein includes an account of Vallotton's technique:

'When he painted a portrait he made a crayon sketch and then began painting at the top of the canvas straight across. Gertrude Stein said it was like pulling down a curtain as slowly moving as one of his Swiss glaciers. Slowly he pulled the curtain down and by the time he was at the bottom of the canvas, there you were."

If this is true (and one can never trust Stein on anything), it suggests that once the lines of the figure were finished, the rest of the work was already fully visualized in the painter's mind, as if he began with a template like a woodcut in his head and then flipped some mental switch to realize it in another medium, fully in color, rounded and naturalistic.

One could do an entire show of Vallotton's portraits, and another of his still lifes and landscapes.

A reckoning with his later nudes, which often feel a bit remote and objectified, is in order, too.

He was a major painter, and one of the great natural talents of his age.

"Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet,"; Through January 26, 2020 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

December 28, 2019 at 10:01 AM | Permalink


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