The big ticket exhibit at the Grand Palais this season is the Braque retrospective. But as I have not yet been able to brave the crowds, I thought I'd check out the less publicized - although no less thorough - retrospective of late 19th/early 20th century painter Félix Vallotton.
The exhibit is actually titled Félix Vallotton: Fire Under the Ice and is one of those times when a retrospective actually has a point of view. In this case, it is to reveal depth and complexity of an artist who is often lumped in with other artists of his time. It is true that Vallotton was a nominal member of the Nabis group of post-impressionists and shared certain aspects of their style (broad planes of color, thick outlines, bold patterns inspired by Japanese prints). But even the Nabis, who considered themselves craftsmen as much as artists, called him "the stranger".
The show is organized by theme rather than chronologically, with such titles as "Deception and Lies" and "The Tragic Violence of a Black Spot." The former mainly concentrates on Vallotton's interior scenes, which are full of half-opened doors, turned backs and illicit embraces. The latter is composed of the artist's black-and-white woodcut prints (which get progressively blacker until there is almost no white) with such titles as "the Execution" (a man being taken to the gallows) and "the Suicide" (a policeman trying to fish a dead body out of the Seine). All in all, it's a pretty dark vision of modern society and light years away from the decorative Nabis.
Vallotton painted a wide range of subjects: portraits, landscapes, still lifes, nudes, which were highly influenced by printmaking, as well as photography. In one section of the show, prints of the actual photographs he used as inspiration are displayed next to the paintings and the similarities in framing are striking. The exhibit also includes examples of his war paintings and his modern take on mythological subjects, but the strongest to me were his portraits of women.
Vallotton apparently was quite ambivalent towards women and feminism. He was drawn to women's bodies, but also seemed kind of freaked out by their power. His many nudes show women in sensuous poses, but the atmosphere and spare visuals are extremely contained. He also painted quite a few portraits of two women together, where some kind of barrier, either physical (a chess set, a table) or symbolic (race, class) separate the two. It's as if he's trying to exert some control in his paintings that he lacked in his personal life. The exhibit does not give a lot of biographical details, but does quote some of Vallotton's writing critical of the "war between the sexes". One of the strongest paintings in the show depicts a nude man and woman standing side by side, but leaning away from each other, their faces contorted in ugly angry. It's entitled simply "Hate."
Before this retrospective, I had seen a few Vallotton paintings in the Musée d'Orsay. I admired their composition and technical skill, but found them rather detached. Now I see them as deeply personal, which is clearly the point of the show. The best retrospectives are more than the sum of its parts and the Vallotton show is a great example of that. It's on at the Grand Palais until January 20.