by John Chilver
published in Turps Banana, number 7, London, October 2009, ISSN 1749-3994, p28-35
A while ago I was introduced to Daniel Richter in a New York hotel elevator. Other chance meetings followed in which art enthusiasms of the moment were exchanged – Dick Bengtsson, Joseph Cornell, Inka Essenhigh. Then a name I didn’t recognise:
‘You mean Suzanne Valadon?’
‘No. Félix Vallotton.’
Daniel Richter – a man not known for his conversational restraint – launched into a relentless gush of praise for this painter I’d never heard of, and as he described the work and what he saw as its complex relation to photography, I grew curious. What could it look like? If it was so good how could I not have heard of it? In the interim following that conversation I’d half forgotten this known-unknown name. And then during a browse around the Musée D’Orsay I chanced on a compact, understated and deceptively chromatic painting of a woman at her dressing table. A very good painting. And one I couldn’t identify. Looking across at the title plate I finally recognised the name ‘Félix Vallotton.’ Enticed by the pleasures and intelligences of this image, I wanted more.
It isn’t easy to see Vallotton – who was French Swiss – if you’re not in Switzerland or France. A lot of the work is in private collections and much of what is in public collections is in provincial museums. That was one reason why I hadn’t previously come across the name or the work. But over the years there have been several travelling survey shows. The most recent was at the Kunsthaus Zürich and then at the Hamburger Kunsthalle in 2008. This was my first chance to see a lot of the work.
What became clear from that exhibition was that the relative obscurity of Vallotton is not just a question of limited public availability. It also has to do with the nature of the work itself and with its paradoxical refusal of style. I will go on to say I what I mean by that. This refusal of style is what makes Vallotton so interesting now and so distinct from his illustrious contemporaries. Am I evangelising? – Yes. We would do well to spend some quality time with Vallotton because somehow – for reasons that I will struggle to figure out here, and which are linked with that notion of a refusal of style – Vallotton (born 1865, died 1925) gets better and better over time, while for me his more celebrated colleagues (meaning Vuillard, Bonnard and even Matisse) get worse. To pastiche Adorno, we might say that the ‘truth-content’ of Vallotton’s work has visibly ripened with historical distance as our present has allowed the past to be dislodged from its own present.
With a minimum of irony Gerhard Richter has said “I am a bourgeois painter.” But Vallotton would have out-bourgoised him. During his artistic life in Paris from 1883 his milieu moved from the petit to the decidedly haute variety. After years of precarious finances, he married a wealthy widow with excellent art-market connections in 1899. The peculiar combination, wrought throughout his work, of conservatism, formal experimentation, love of sensation, allegory, eroticism, misogyny, empathy, bourgeois fetishism, together with the twisting modulations of his style-consciousness, all go to making the work chime more with the conditions of painting in the twenty-first century than with Vallotton’s own epoch. I would argue that current painters as various as John Currin, Michaël Borremans, Kay Donachie, Lucy McKenzie, Peter Doig, Matthias Weischer, Luc Tuymans and Silke Otto-Knapp all have more in common with the spirit of Vallotton than with Bonnard or Matisse. The comparison may sound like a crass parlour-game. But there is a substantial point to be derived from it concerning style. As good high modernists, Matisse and Bonnard (no less than Mondrian and Léger) kept within a certain sense of style at a given moment. Of course it is true that they showed stylistic development over time. But by and large their style remained indifferent to the varieties of image. For instance, in 1920 Matisse would paint a figure in an interior in much the same way as he would paint a cityscape or a still-life. In high modernist painting consistency of style was associated with authorial commitment and as such was understood to be largely indifferent to pictorial genre. Vallotton, co-incidentally like Picabia in this respect, was not a good modernist. Perhaps his characteristic conservatism prevented it. For him genre trumped style. Thus he conceived his allegorical paintings – in their choice of palette, register of mark, size and scale, modes and degrees of depictive abbreviation – in a way quite distinct from his landscapes or portraits or interiors or nudes. Somewhat like Gerhard Richter, Vallotton produced groupings of works within his oeuvre that established their own separate norms of style, technique and affective milieu.
A key early picture, ‘The Mistress and the Servant’ of 1896, rehearses many of the pre-occupations and virtues of Vallotton’s mature work. The painting looks like a crude modernist parody of Cranach, but this is deceptive. The solutions to portraying the transparency of the shallow seawater with its half-submerged stones and gently lapping waves may be technically facile but they are highly inventive and efficient in their pictorial economy. The painting purports to be about class. It proposes to savour a moment when hierarchy is inverted, if only in the instant of a gesture. The servant is upright, assured, in rude health, sun-toned, fearless and autonomous. The mistress is anaemic, over-cautious, awkwardly folded in on herself and in need of the servant’s guiding hand. So far so progressive. But what’s characteristic of Vallotton here is that the PC class warrior routine gets hijacked by his gaze. What seems to matter just as much for the painting is that the servant’s proletarian arse – which is turned toward the viewer - is hot whereas the haute bourgeois arse of the mistress is repulsive. If you like your art to be ethical in any straightforward way you could avoid Vallotton. With Vallotton the ‘ethical deficiencies’ of the images are apparently not unconscious, not blind spots at all: they are grasped and embraced in full recognition of their stakes.
Two crucially important work groups are the female nudes, which traverse the whole career, and the allegorical figure paintings that became prominent from around 1907 but trace their origin back to the celebrated ‘Bathers on a Summer Evening’ of 1892 (which also refers back to Cranach albeit blended with a strong dose of faux Japanese style). These series also fold into each other now and again in paintings that are simultaneously nudes and allegories. Of great benefit in the paintings where the genres overlap is one of Vallotton’s favourite devices: the figure standing in shallow water. This is such a prominent trope that it deserves discussion. ‘The Mistress and the Servant’ above provided an introduction to the device. There the shallow water was what permitted the limits of ordinary etiquette to be revealed. The shoreline is a malleable zone at and beyond the limits of normal sociability. By stepping into the shallows, the mistress and her servant depart from the dominant codes of dress and comportment. More generally, Vallotton uses shallow water in many of the single figure nudes and several crucial allegorical nudes to signal that the paintings don’t care about realisms that would need faithful depictions of the interiors or topographies in which the women are posed. These figures in shallow water – which are exclusively female – occupy spaces that are not places; they are not places because they are always rhetorical, more-or-less theatrical spaces that often indicate no measurable dimensions, and whose lighting looks artificial, like a film set that’s unaffected by times of day. Often by tipping up the plane of the water surface so that it gets tilted closer to the picture plane itself, Vallotton further indicates the removal of these theatrical spaces form the demands of realisms.
With its repetition in work after work, the water becomes a kind of atmosphere made viscous. It is a space displaced by the figure. And it allows the pictures to indicate temperature, touch and time via the conceit of an affective drama of displacement. The figure touches the water but is also touched by the water. And Vallotton nearly always makes a point of formalising the ripples across the surface that emanate from the figure’s limbs or torso.
In the extraordinary and brutal 1907 ‘Three Women and a Small Girl Playing in the Water’ [Kunstmuseum Basel], Vallotton weaves together several of these threads. Because the composition systematically obstructs or obscures the faces of the three women, it is the young girl on the right who emerges as the isolated empathetic focus of the narrative. It’s hard to ignore a charge of misogyny. But the energy of the picture is no less for that. The ostensible moral – so far as it’s readable – seems to me to be that the consequence of female sexual maturation is violent competitive struggle among women. Yet again – as with ‘The Mistress and the Servant’ – there is a sense of Vallotton dissimulating here. The figure of the little girl is ostensibly proposed as an innocent witness who wants to join in a game – with arms raised in anticipation – but does not or can not because the women’s game has grown menacing. But by the details of her hair and genitals, the girl is clearly sexualised for the viewer if not yet for herself. As with ‘The Mistress and the Servant’ the voyeuristic elements of the image cut through the didactic surface of the allegory.
What about Vallotton’s nudes? The softcore eroticism is frankly stated. It does though contain a note of knowing absurdity in relation to the classical genre of the nude. Frequently Vallotton shows the would-be nude as incompletely undressed or uncovered. This is ultra coy. Almost silly. On the other hand, it marks the classical pretence of the genre to transcend the phallic gaze and to naturalise the condition of nudity. Strictly speaking pictures like the 1914 ‘Nude with a Green Sash’ [Musée des Beaux-Arts, La Chaux-de-Fonds] or the 1924 ‘Nude Holding a Book’ [Kunsthaus Zürich] do not conform to the classical genre of the nude precisely by virtue of their coy game of concealment and uncovering. We are in the similar territory to Picabia’s brittle porn-derived paintings of the 1940s. But in the end Vallotton’s nudes are more complex and somehow more ambitious than Picabia’s. Here Vallotton locates a niche as though in an unlikely interzone between the Neue Sachlichkeit of Christian Schad and the auto-affected bourgeois hedonism of Nice-period Matisse. In every way this late painting has its cake and eats it too. It revels in its chromatically dense building blocks of saturated red and green; yet the figure is modelled entirely tonally and unchromatically. The translucent black fabric around the lower legs signals an eroticising intent that is then substantially neutralised by mood of the woman’s face. In the softcore nudes Vallotton pioneered the same procedure of adapting photographic sources from magazines that Picabia would adopt and which since the 1960s has become standard practice. Once you see the picture in relation to contemporary photo-derived painting it takes on another aspect. It seems to evade the dead ends of so much recent photo-painting by treating the photographic source as a means rather than a destination. Vallotton, in other words, is not interested in the photographic condition of the source as such. He inserts the photographically derived figure into another context and negotiates the pictorial dislocation with extreme tact and so arrives at a precarious and implausible midpoint between Ingres and Picabia. These paintings struggle to hold kitsch at bay and to contain its repercussions, while simultaneously welcoming the astringent reality effect of the photographic on the modalities of the traditional nude. In this sense they continue and re-intensify the problematic of Manet’s ‘Olympia’ in a new setting.
Like everyone of his no longer belle epoch, Vallotton was traumatised by the 1914-18 war. One stepson was taken prisoner in the trenches, another wounded. The war paintings and prints are an extensive and significant part of his oeuvre, but one I haven’t seen. The rightly celebrated 1916 painting ‘Four Torsos’ [Lausanne, Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts] shows Vallotton essaying the nude in the age of biological warfare. Here for once his habitual pictorial desire is displaced. In an intensely disturbed image, the nude is de-sublimated, as is emphatically signalled by the refusal of any integrated figure/ground relationships in the composition where each headless torso is spliced by the others or by the canvas edge. Each body is fragmentary. Colour, warmth and character are absent.
Colour is central to three key paintings in other genres: the widely exhibited ‘Red Peppers’, 1915 [Kunstmuseum Solothurn], the ‘Children on the Pink Rocks’ 1917 [private collection] and the ‘Haven at Trégastel’, 1917 [Galerie du Chêne, Lausanne]. When pictures look good they look good right away. It happens fast. There is then the question how much longer you linger. But the affect of the first glimpse is rarely undone by the lingering. (And perhaps it is the speed of painting that enables it to survive now.) Aside from certain paintings that activate a temporal phenomenology through optical operations (Op, Ad Reinhardt and so on), by and large painting works as a spatial art, which is to say as a non-temporal art. The relationship between the instantaneous glimpse and the durational viewing is resistant to generalisation because: [a] every painting determines its particular informational economy – in which it’s hard if not impossible to distinguish between quality and quantity (levels of detail, and so on) of information, and [b] the viewing time is chosen by viewer.
One question I want to ask, but can’t yet answer, is how long Vallotton worked on a painting. This connects with the informational economy of the image, the bargain it strikes between detail and abbreviation. Of course today the question of how much time is spent making a painting has become more and more strategic; the decision to spend one day only (Giorgio Morandi, Luc Tuymans, Mary Heilmann) imposes a limit on the range of effects that can appear. On the other hand, as in the case of a big Murakami or Koons painting, the overload of detail is dependent on the quantity of labour-hours hired by studio managers. I introduced informational economy to refer in the first instance to the depictive matrix of an image, but this soon folds into the calculative economy of money and time. The informational economy of a painting is therefore central to its affective force and its politics. We are told that Vallotton’s early painting ‘The Sick Woman’ of 1892 was painted over a six-month period, but none of his subsequent paintings show quite this level of naturalistic precision. Vallotton had turned – with some success – to print-making in the 1890s in part to make more money than he could though his then rarely selling paintings. Something of the speed and the graphic directness of the woodcuts remains in all the paintings that followed. Print-making seems to have taught Vallotton how to capitalise on the telling abbreviation and when to filter out detail. The role of colour in this is complicated. In the 1915 ‘Red Peppers’ the initial optical speed of the image is driven by the saturated reds on the white ground. After that there’s the game of reflections that slows things down: reds mirrored first on the blade and then much more quietly on the white lacquer table, and the white highlights bouncing off the flesh of the peppers themselves. In the end everything here is declared to be in some degree a mirror and therefore a sheer surface that never can fully display its ‘own colour.’ In the 1917 ‘Rade à Trégastel’ the colouring slows down the image by blending the zones that meet along its divisions and injecting chromatic interruptions into tonally even blocks of the composition. Elsewhere, as in ‘Children on the Pink Rocks’, colour is metaphor, with the pink biomorphic forms of the rocks standing for the absent parents.
It is often said that since Pop and Warhol there has been a return to genre in painting. Gerhard Richter has surely banked that return to genre, adding the modernist genres of ‘abstraction’ and/or ‘monochrome’ to the classically derived list. There is of course a certain doggedness or idiocy about the presumed authority of precedent in this conception of genre. But the alternative presumption of a clean exit from genre and its echoes is no less troublesome. If anyone truly escaped from genre in modern painting it was surely the heroic-nihilist Malevich at the high tide of his Suprematism. Yet when he returned to traditional genres in the 1920s and 30s, Malevich was not merely responding pragmatically to Stalin’s simplifying logic but was also intuiting that sooner or later painting would have to de-homogenise itself in order to continue.
Despite utterly dissimilar circumstances, something of that same intuition was there in Vallotton’s equivocal refusal of style that transcends genre. I say equivocal because Vallotton was thoroughly attuned to the finer inflections of style and was clearly an artist who deliberated over and consciously deployed style. Yet he avoids an over-arching style that could be indifferent to genre. Becoming more familiar with the work, I can usually spot a Vallotton now. There isn’t a consistent style in any visual sense, but in some other non-visual way there is a strong thread of continuity, what we could call a style of conception. Let’s sign off with this gambit: for Vallotton the image is, in the end, a parable. That commitment brings a precise consistency of purpose to his painting that almost amounts to style, but not of visual forms. If anything, it’s a style for reconnaissance at the thresholds of situations (of all kinds).
Vallotton works referred to:
‘The Mistress and the Servant’ 1896, oil on cardboard, 52 x 66 cm, private collection
‘Three Women and a Small Girl Playing in the Water’ 1907, oil on canvas, 130.5 x 195.5 cm, Kunstmuseum Basel
‘Nude with a Green Sash’ 1914, oil on canvas, 112 x 145 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts, La Chaux-de-Fonds
‘Nude Reading a Book’ 1924, oil on canvas, 115 x 146 cm, Kunsthaus Zürich
‘Four Torsos’ 1916, oil on canvas, 92 x 72.5 cm, Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts, Lausanne
‘Red Peppers’ 1915, oil o canvas, 46 x 55 cm, Kunstmuseum Solothurn
‘Children on the Pink Rocks’ 1917, oil on canvas, 65 x 55.5 cm, private collection
‘Haven at Trégastel’ 1917, oil on canvas, 55 x 87 cm, Galerie du Chêne, Lausanne
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