Review: Felix Vallotton: painter of disquiet

The Visit (La Visite), 1899. Félix Vallotton, Kunsthaus Zürich, 1909 © Kunsthaus Zürich.

The first painting on display is a self-portrait at twenty. Vallotton looks over his shoulder at you, not quite meeting your eyes and yet managing to convey an air of petulant challenge. This sense of being challenged, of making the viewer feel both observed and voyeuristic, and definitely uncomfortable, infuses all of his works.

The caption describes the portrait as displaying a ‘self-confidence that belies his age’, though it would seem that it was more suited to his age than contradicting it. It is the confidence of unfulfilled potential and anxiousness about living up to it that a twenty year old might find unnervingly familiar.

It is this unnerving familiarity that Valloton captures so expertly in his art. Even in scenes that might bear no resemblance to one’s own life, there is a spark of recognition, of something seen before. Indeed, few twenty year olds today would have had similar experiences to Valloton, who had at this point been living in Paris for four years. He had come to Paris to study art, leaving a strict Protestant family in Switzerland.

He captures both the excitement of the age, Paris in the Belle Epoque, as well as the more mundane realities of life. In both, he conveys the emotion within the scene with a strangely cool, often critical, detachment. This is particularly evident in his woodcut series, ‘Intimacies’, for which he received great critical acclaim. He satires the sexual mores of the Parisian bourgeoisie – adultery, argument, deception and dishonesty. He creates stories with suggestive titles like ‘Money’ which insinuate but do not signpost the sin.

After his marriage, he turned away from woodcuts, a decision which was criticised, and came to portray domestic life with less cynicism but equal discomfort. ‘Dinner by Lamplight’ shows Vallotton’s own experience of bourgeois family dynamics. The severe contrast between light and dark remains from his woodcuts, but there is greater nuance in the light which is more obviously revealing. Vallotton looms in the foreground, a black silhouette opposite his stepdaughter, who stares boldly at both the viewer and Vallotton. We cannot see the artists expression, but we can gauge how he is feeling by being drawn into the scene, looking through his eyes and experiencing the tension in the air.

The dark silhouette that serves as a point in which all the emotion of the scene is centred is also seen in ‘Woman Searching Through a Cupboard.’ The woman is crouched on the ground, making the size of the cupboard, and the task itself, seem exaggeratedly large. The bright sheets in the cupboard, illuminated by lamplight in the dark room seem ominous and oppressive, suggestive of how difficult a supposedly routine task can become at times.

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