Félix Vallotton review, Royal Academy: a distinctive and distinctly odd bohemian

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Portrait de Madame GabrIelle Vallotton, 1905 (detail)
Portrait de Madame GabrIelle Vallotton, 1905 (detail) Credit: Felix Vallotton/Mairie de Bordeaux/F. Devel

Félix Vallotton is a name that will be familiar to anyone conversant with the heady world of the Post-Impressionists: one of many brilliant young artists milling around the cafes and studios of fin-de-siècle Paris. Yet few of us could bring even one of his paintings to mind. That looks set to change, however, with this revelatory exhibition, which views the Swiss-born painter as one of the most distinctive of that extraordinary time – and one of the oddest of any era.

Born in Lausanne in 1865, Vallotton moved to Paris at 16, studying at the influential Academie Julian alongside Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard, with whom he formed the Nabis – The Prophets – a group of radical young painters who were heavily influenced by Gauguin. Yet even among this band of bohemian outsiders Valloton seems to have been a figure apart.

In The Five Painters (1902-03), he looks warily over the shoulders of his fellow Nabis. The work feels like a knowing pastiche of Henri Fantin-Latour’s iconic group portraits of the impressionists, but seems deliberately unresolved. Parts are meticulously realistic, others loose and stylised. Indeed, throughout the exhibition Vallotton dips in and out of styles and eras, playing games with what we expect.  

In Bathers on a Summer Evening (1892-3), an array of partially dressed women of many ages, each of whom seems to have been conceived and drawn entirely separately, appear slapped – almost like stickers – onto a flatly painted riverbank.

It brings to mind the monumental compositions of the then hugely influential mural painter Puvis de Chavannes, reimagined by the Japanese print master Utamaro, with a touch of Walt Disney. Vallotton’s painting was considered so outrageous at the time that even Toulouse-Lautrec, one of the few who liked it, warned him to expect a visit from the police.

Bathers on a Summer Evening (Le Bain au soir d’été), 1892-93  Credit: Felix Vallotton/Kunsthaus Zürich 

Vallotton made his name, however, with prints – satirical woodcuts for the literary magazine La Revue Blanche that combine the legibility of the popular cartoon with the vigorous, decorative designs of Japanese prints. In The Demonstration (1893) – one of many images reflecting the political upheavals of the time – the flattened shapes of the black-clad demonstrators form an almost abstract pattern as they flee across the empty white paper.

Vallotton’s feel for the dramatic potential of black and white reaches its apogee in The Intimacies (1898) – ten woodcuts showing amorous assignations among the Parisian bourgeoisie – in which the action is captured in starkly drawn highlights against large areas of ominous black. 

Here, as in his paintings on similar themes, Vallotton’s censorious approach recalls high-minded Victorian painters such as Holman-Hunt. His way of painting, on the other hand, in which he breaks forms into flat areas of often jarring colour – a bright red table-cloth or a pair of blue vases – recalls Patrick Caulfield’s Sixties pop art interiors. It’s a heady combination.

Le Mensonge, 1897 Credit: Felix Vallotton/The Cone Collection/Mitro Hood

Vallotton’s domestic scenes take us in a different direction again, hinting at the dramas percolating in tightly observed everyday scenes. The crouched figure in Woman Searching through a Cupboard (1901) for instance, silhouetted against brightly-lit stacks of linen and surrounded by an engulfing blackness, has a Hitchcockian sense that something sinister is up.

These paintings aren’t quite like anything you’ve seen before. They also yield continual surprises. Take The White and the Black (1913), for example, an apparent deconstruction of Manet’s 1863 masterpiece Olympia, in which a reclining white woman is attended by a black servant. In Vallotton’s updating it’s the black woman who seems to be in control, sitting on the bed – smoking what looks like a large joint – as she watches the naked sleeping white nude with an expression best described, like most things in this fascinating exhibition, as more than a little ambiguous.

June 30 until Sept 29; 020 7300 8090; royalacademy.org.uk