The Vallotton Exhibition, the Royal Academy

Margot A. LoudonNon classé

The sub-title of the exhibition,” Painter of Disquiet”, is very apt, as many of Vallotton’s   paintings and prints tell stories of unsettling relationships, and some of brutality and threatening intimacy. His early works, capturing street scenes, call to mind Baudelaire’s concept of the flaneur, the observer of city life. A few of his narrative vignettes are less serious almost amusing. He shows solid citizens struggling with wind and rain, market scenes, a comfortable bourgousie,  but alongside these images others show a woman trampled by a horse, police laying into demonstrators with their batons, and a man awaiting his execution.

This flaneur brought his observational skills indoors from the market to the newly fashionable department store, to salons and boudoirs, and even his own home. Vallotton was a precise, economical and realistic painter and printer, and he used these qualities to weave questions around his subjects, inviting the viewer to speculate on a back-narrative and what the future holds. The series Intimacies is a powerful set of woodcuts, reflecting a cynical view of at best ambiguous male/female relationships in elegant but somewhat oppressive   surroundings. He painted the same themes in bold, sometimes brittle, colours. The strong reds of The Lie are jarring to the eye, their impact confirming the false, destructive nature of the embrace.

Even his own domestic interiors are laced with unease, notably the Dinner by Lamplight, in which the painter’s foregrounded silhouette looms confrontationally at his dining table.

Vallotton gave up printing for some years, but then late in his life he produced a shocking set of images on the horrors of the trenches in the First World War. Bodies tangled in Barbed Wire and the hand-to-hand combat of  In the Darkness convey horror with an impressive economy of line.

I enjoyed the exhibition. In particular Vallotton’s innovative woodcuts made me want to try that technique again.

Vallotton was influenced by different contemporary artistic movements and personalities, but his own originality is ever present.