25 October 2015

Felix Vallotton: All Is Not What It Appears To Be

I - There is a style of art criticism that I  think of as being peculiarly American.  Peter Schjeldahl, from his position at the New Yorker, practices it with relish.   The style was rejected as the "biographical fallacy" after World War II, but critics find it so appealing that it keeps coming back and, it can be a useful tool, if deftly employed.   Biographical criticism was made popular by a Frenchman, Hippolyte Taine (1828-1895). Taine's contention that you could learn a lot about a work of art by knowing something about its creator's life is one of those propositions that is so vague that it is impossible to disprove. That a Frenchman introduced this idea seems unremarkable yet  the French have long shown a lack of interest  in biography as is it practiced in the English-speaking world.

But getting back to Schjeldahl who has never met a dead artist whose sex life - or lack thereof - didn't make his hair stand up with anticipation.   Where an Abstract Expressionist like Helen Frankenthaler was always at pains to deny the landscape-like elements in her work, Willem de Kooning  was considered  a strong painter for including  subtle and not so subtle reminders of his copious sexual escapades into his pictures. Said escapades were retailed with relish by Schjeldahl is his column in the New Yorker.

II - The risks of biographical interpretation are nicely illustrated by the paintings of Felix Vallotton (1865-1925).   Vallotton, a Swiss artist,  is best known for his black and white woodcuts, particularly the  series  Intimacies  and Crimes And Punishments.  They are like firecrackers, some go off immediately they are set and some do a slow burn.  His paintings are not so well known in North America; most are in European museums.
Le Ballon (see above), painted in 1899,  is one of the best-known; it has been an inspiration to hundreds of photographers.  Indeed, Vallotton himself had purchased Kodak camera that year and 
there is a convincing hypothesis offered by critics that Vallotton created the composition of Le Ballon by using two photographs, one taken from above (afar)  and one taken from below (a close-up), approximating a view from underwater.   The end result is a painting that shows us two worlds - the world of a child chasing a balloon and the world of  adults.  I am far from the first person to notice that the shadow of unseen trees seems to symbolize the adult world chasing the little girl toward the future.
What might a biographical interpretation of Le Ballon be?   In 1899, Vallotton married a widow who had three children.  At thirty-three,  the  bachelor with a reputation for modiness had acquired a ready-made family.  Conjecture as you you like; here's what Vallotton had to say.  The boys were "two perfect cretins."   As for his step-daughter, "Madeleine parades and imposes her self-importance, her stupidity, her bossiness."  And again:   "She spends her time doing her nails and watching everyone's suffering as if from on high."  All this family happiness prompted Vallotton to ask himself: "What has man done wrong that he is obliged to submit to this terrifying 'associate' known as woman?"

III -  Vallotton's landscapes.   Felix Vallotton began painting his disorienting  landscapes several years before he acquired  his first camera. They leave the viewer in the odd position of never quite knowing where they are.  The artist called them "paysages composes" and with good reason; they were not painted from nature or memory, rather they were assembled from bits of nature that he relished and then combined into a whole of his own making.  Vallotton had his reasons for using cutout forms with contrasting colors.  He had belonged to the relatively short lived movement known as Nabism, a bouillabaisse of symbolism, abstraction, and infatuation with Japanese prints; Vallotton then became a master of the woodcut himself.  And  as to the problem of the elephant in the room: the only thing Vallotton's work has in common with Impressionism is that admiration for Japanese art of the floating world. His landscapes should not be taken literally  although he often named them after specific locations, you  will not find their approximations on location;  the artist was after a universal landscape, a landscape of the imagination that the Symbolists would have recognized as their own.
The early landscape Clair de lune (1894) is a nocturne in navy blue with a fat pink cloud conglomeration that looks more substantial than the land itself.  As for the  stream that cuts across the field reflecting the moonlit clouds, it is cutout stream, reminding us that although ink-dark colors suggest depth, this is a flat paper world, a floating world indeed.  After a few years, Vallotton turned to other subjects; when he produced The Pond - Honfleur in 1909 it was his first landscape in several years and, once again, a nocturne.
IV -  Like most artists with large oeuvre, Vallotton's work varies in interest.  There is really nothing to be said about his nudes except perhaps that what works for the natural world doesn't work well for human bodies. When the Zurich Kunsthaus presented a solo exhibition of Vallotton's work in 2007, it had been forty years since the last one.  Nothing equals the woodcuts and we would be poorer without them but the landscapes and interiors deserve another look.

For further reading: Keeping An Eye Open by Julian Barnes, New York, Alfred A. Knopf: 2015.
1. Felix Vallotton - La ballon ou Coin de parc avec enfant au ballon + 1899, Musee d'Oesay, Paris.
2. Felix Vallotton - Clair de lune, 1895, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
3. Felix Vallotton - The Pond - Honfleur, 1909, Kunstmuseum, Basel.


ACravan said...

Thank you for this fine piece. I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed reading it. Curtis Roberts

Jane said...

Hello, A Craven. Thanks for the kind words. Julian Barnes has some amusing things say about Vallotton's lesser work.
I looked at your webpage and the first thing I see is a picture - of Scott Walker! I used to have his solo records.

ACravan said...

Jane -- I will check out Julian Barnes' comments. I first became aware of Vallotton's work a long time ago in high school, probably when reading Roger Shattuck's The Banquet Years. Thank you for visiting my blog. I haven't been posting a great deal during the past year, but I'm glad you found it. Actually, the photo you saw, which looks a lot like Scott Walker, is of Andrew Loog Oldham, the Rolling Stones' erstwhile manager, who was and is a talented man, but probably should have left the rock star portraiture work to people like Scott, who is still alive and mysterious, by the way, and has produced some fascinating work over the past couple of decades. Anyway, yours was a great post, but that's par for the course with The Blue Lantern. Oh -- our daughter's name is also Jane. Curtis

Jane said...

A Craven, Andrew Loog Oldham? That explains the bad shirt; I've always thought Scott Walker had better taste than that. He's done some avant garde work in recent decades, I think.