No masterpieces but there are beautiful touches: Félix Vallotton at the RA reviewed

6 July 2019

9:00 AM

6 July 2019

9:00 AM

Félix Vallotton (1865–1925) was a member of the Nabis (the Prophets), a problematically loose agglomeration of painters, inspired by Gauguin and Émile Bernard, the school of Pont-Aven. Broadly speaking, this entailed an alleged allegiance to spirituality and anti-naturalistic flat colour.

The Nabis — a secret group moniker —were heterogeneous, a broad church that seldom sang from the same hymn sheet. As we can see from Vallotton’s inadvertently emblematic ‘The Five Painters’ (1902–3): Vallotton stands to the left and Ker-Xavier Roussel stands to the right. Below, seated, are Bonnard, Vuillard and Charles Cottet.  Like many group paintings, it is an identity parade of posed and wooden mugshots. It is formally incoherent. Vallotton has attempted to unify and animate his painting with hand gestures. They overwhelm the picture. Everyone appears to be learning sign language. Or engaged in some mystical game of pass-the-parcel. It is all fingers and thumbs. And not all the hands in this plethora are convincing: Vuillard’s scrum of clasped fingers is enigmatically related to his wrists and Cottet’s left little finger is worryingly skewiff, like Dupuytren’s contracture.  Significantly, Cottet was not a member of the Nabis. Paul Sérusier, on the other hand, fountainhead of the Nabis ‘philosophy’, is nowhere to be seen.

Temperamentally, Vallotton was a realist painter, despite some determined gestures at diversification. He doesn’t fundamentally change from his early, meticulous ‘Self Portrait at the Age of Twenty’ (1885), hair combed carefully forward, like a butter curler. His young moustache is a misty pyramid. His look is self-possessed, self-conscious, cool, appraising, withheld. His patron, Thadée Natanson, publisher of La Revue blanche: ‘He had the air of being constantly on his guard.’

His artistic openness was fleeting. ‘Woman with a Poodle’ (c.1895) is Vuillard-influenced. Her face is invisible, obscured by a veil gathered in from the broad brim of her hat, the tapering shape of a lantern. She is wearing a long narrow scarf almost down to the hem of her coat. The poodle is up on its hind legs, a lively brown Rorschach blot.  ‘Woman Searching a Cupboard’ (1901) (see p29) is another Vuillard of stacked, ironed linen, striped tea towels, thrillingly modest, lit from below by a lamp. ‘The Ball’ (oil on cardboard, 1899) is a Bonnard: in the background are two diminutive adult figures. On their right, a scenic swathe of leafage. In the foreground, perfectly placed on the canvas, a lovely little girl, in a white overall and a straw boater with a red ribbon, is unmistakably running after a red ball. The painting has a charm and spatial freedom that escapes the ultra-competent default realism which constantly reclaims Vallotton, imposing some of the willed execution we associate with, say, Euan Uglow.

Another experiment can be seen in ‘Félix Fénéon at La Revue blanche’ (c.1896). Vallotton was also a print-maker and here he brings the qualities of woodcut to painting. Fénéon’s goatee is just visible. The face is an arrangement of planes, like the editorial pile-up on his desk. The eye is a dark triangle, the cheekbone a wedge of shadow. The stern mouth has a set of incisions at its edges. The right hand is writing with the left hand next to it, holding the paper steady. It is quite difficult to see, though, how exactly the left hand relates to the left arm that faces us.

Arms are a problem, too, in ‘Misia at her Dressing Table’ (distemper on cardboard, 1898). The picture is an experiment of flat textures, of outline rather than intricacy. Her left arm is leaning persuasively on the back of her hand as it rests on the dressing table. Her right arm is less authoritative. It is raised to the left of her neck, so we can see its back. This perfectly normal gesture — try it — somehow looks indefinably implausible. Something has gone missing, lost in the blocked colour. A pity, because the shadow cast by the black velvet bow under her bosom is realised perfectly, as are the rucked towels on their rails in the background.

There are no masterpieces here, though there are beautiful touches. ‘On the Beach’ (oil on cardboard, 1899) has a red beret at its centre, plucked and dented like a capsicum. ‘Bathing on a Summer Evening’ (oil on canvas, 1892–3) is a case in point. Emphasis on nudity. In the background, however, is a figure undressing with her shift over her head and shoulders, like the famous figure in Piero della Francesca’s ‘Baptism of Christ’ in the National Gallery. Nearby there is a woman drying herself and a little girl shivering as her mother rubs her down. An old woman’s buttocks — puckered slippage, drooping yams — contribute to the truth of the picture. On the other hand, there is a problem with the surface line of the water: a sumptuous set of buttocks in the foreground at first reads like a front view of thighs. The ‘mons’ proves to be the plump triangular cushion at the top of the bum.

Vallotton was always drawn to the female nude. ‘Model Sitting on a Divan in the Studio’ (oil on cardboard, 1904) shows a model in her shift easing a foot into her black stocking. She is sitting on an ottoman resting on a kilim. To the right are two canvases turned to the wall so we can see the stretchers and the raw canvas. They are a declaration of artistic intent — a determination to depict the informal, the unofficial — but they fatally summon Degas’s prior, superior example. Similarly, ‘The White Woman and the Black Woman’ (oil on canvas, 1913) fatally, if deliberately, summons Manet’s ‘Olympia’. The differences are clear. Manet’s grande horizontale is pert, prepared, professional, detached, with her lolling backless high-heeled slipper and her velvet choker. Vallotton’s nude is amateur: face flushed, cheeks abraded, eyes half-closed. The exhaustion of the act is still on her. Her black companion is smoking a cigarette. There used to be a joke about the three best things in the world — a drink before and a smoke after. The difference in talent is also clear.

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