Félix Vallotton review

3 out of 5 stars
Félix Vallotton review
Félix Vallotton 'The Bathing on a Summer Evening' (1892-93) Kunsthaus Zürich, Gottfried Keller Foundation, Federal Office of Culture, Berne, 1965

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

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Félix Vallotton wasn’t just one artist; he was at least three. The French-Swiss painter (1865-1925) was a historically indebted traditionalist, a satirical commercial printmaker and an experimental, fully paid-up member of the turn-of-the-century Parisian avant-garde. He was all of those things, often at once.

Since he constantly veered from one style to the other, this show is a mish-mash of his output, organised largely chronologically. His more traditional paintings nod back to Dürer and Ingres, all stern, austere minimalism. His portraits in this style are largely unremarkable – flat, emotionless, sometimes even a little ugly. His later traditional nudes are much better. Quiet, unsettling, neatly composed. His response to Manet’s ‘Olympia’ especially has a lovely, odd appeal.

But the real gold is Vallotton’s woodcuts, all produced for the Parisian press. They’re simple, direct, stark images – closer to cartoons than fully fledged works of art. He had such a clarity of vision with the medium, masterfully using huge blocks of black and white to compose scenes that mocked and teased everyday French life. The later images from WWI are great too.

He was also heavily associated with the Nabis group of avant garde artists, headed by Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard. There are good things among his experimental works. The four interior scenes from the late 1890s are filled with canoodling couples in what look like forbidden trysts, hiding in the shadows of rooms made of great hulking slabs of dark red and greens. Seedy, intense, and very good.

But boy did he produce some crap. A swirling waltz image looks like someone’s eaten and then vomited up a Toulouse-Lautrec, a beach scene looks like it was painted by someone who’s never seen a beach, and the only good thing about some of the ultra-dark interior scenes is that they’re so dark you can barely see them.

Look, sometimes Félix Vallotton was very good, sometimes he was very mediocre, and sometimes he was very bad. Maybe if he’d tried to just be one artist instead of three he’d have made a better go of it all.


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