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American Women's Club of Hamburg

Félix Vallotton: A Poignant Observer

Bizarre poses, stage-like interiors, sexually charged encounters and painfully realistic depictions are characteristics of Félix Vallotton’s art. The Hamburger Kunsthalle offers a rare opportunity to get to know the neglected, Swiss-born artist. The exhibit Félix Vallotton: Idyll on the Edge is on view from February 15 through May 18. The exhibit organized together with the Kunsthaus Zürich shows 70 paintings, over 50 woodcuts, posters, book illustrations and vignettes. Even though fellow artists and art historians know Vallotton, he, just like Helene Schjerfbeck, is largely unknown to the general public, at least in Germany.
Born in Lausanne in 1865, Vallotton left for Paris when he was 17 years old to become an artist and to study at the Académie Julian. In 1890 he became a French citizen. At the beginning, his radically innovative black and white woodcuts gained him recognition. Vallotton’s work was widely published in periodicals and books in Europe as well as in the US. In 1892 he became closely associated with ‘Les Nabis’, a group of French painters. The name Nabis (Hebrew: ‘prophets’) was coined in reference to the missionary zeal with which the artists promoted Paul Gauguin’s teaching.

 


Although Vallotton’s art seems cool and distant it is enigmatic at the same time. “Vallotton’s protagonists are caught in a tightly woven net of betrayal and oppression”, states Dr. Felix Krämer, curator of the exhibit. “They are shown in scenes of exposure and adultery, concealed by heavy curtains and surrounded by knick-knacks and cheap ornaments.” In 1909 Félix Vallotton had his first one-man show at the Kunsthaus Zürich. The exhibit was off limits for teenagers because of the explicit depictions of female nudes. “Étude de Fesses” (circa 1884) is a merciless portrayal of a woman’s behind, depicted with minute and impersonal exactitude of detail in a photorealistic style which became very popular the 1960s. Vallotton worked as a painter, print maker, illustrator, sculptor and writer; however, his woodcuts and paintings established him as an internationally acclaimed avant-garde artist.

 

Félix Vallotton, the person, was not very pleasant but rather withdrawn and tight-lipped, according to his friends and colleagues. He was a harsh critic of bourgeois conventions. In 1899, nevertheless, he left his long-time lover and model Hélène Chatenay, a factory worker, to marry wealthy widow Gabrielle Rodriques-Henriques. Her brothers owned Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, a noted Parisian art gallery that was soon to begin representing Vallotton. One wonders whether the painting “La Visite”, 1899, might be autobiographic: A selfassertive looking man greets a reluctant and at the same time purposeful purple-coated woman in a room with carefully arranged furniture. The viewer’s glance is drawn to the left side of the painting where the open bedroom door implies the purpose of the visit.

Many of Félix Vallotton’s works contain formal elements that anticipate such movements as Surrealism and Neue Sachlichkeit. Vallotton, who was a great admirer of Holbein, Cranach, Dürer and Ingres, is himself admired by contemporary artists like Daniel Richter: “Félix Vallotton, idol of my sleepless nights.”

originally published in Currents Feb/Mar 2008

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