What exactly is the subject of the painting ‘Le Mensonge/The Lie’ by the Swiss artist Félix Vallotton (above)? A couple in evening dress are locked in an embrace in a plush interior. Yet all is not what it seems. Who’s the one being economical with the truth? The woman’s scarlet dress and serpentine pose alone should start alarm bells ringing and she does indeed seem to be whispering something in the man’s ear. On the other hand, the man’s nonchalant body language and complacent smirk suggest that more is happening here than he’s letting on. Or is Vallotton making a more general point about everyday falsehoods in relations between the sexes? And would we otherwise gather any of this without knowing the painting’s title?
Paris-based Vallotton (1865-1925) is little known in this country and the Royal Academy’s new show aims to set this right. The setting for his work is a fin-de-siècle world of furtive liaisons and forbidden desires, with a dash of Grand Guignol added the mix. He was friendly with, and exhibited alongside, ‘Nabi’ artists like Édouard Vuillard, and it’s almost as if the family from a cosy Vuillard interior had wandered into a Gaston Leroux shocker. The title of one of Vallotton’s paintings is ‘The Red Room’ but change the colour scheme and it could be the setting for Leroux’s ‘Mystery of the Yellow Room’. The associations aren’t merely literary – it’s no surprise that the novelist Julian Barnes is a big fan – but cinematic too: you’re reminded of the work of Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock and, in fact, the RA is screening Hitchcock’s ‘Rope’ in tandem with this exhibition.
Vallotton is probably seen at his best in his prints and small-scale works. During the 1890s he mostly made a living as an illustrator, working for the literary magazine ‘La Revue Blanche’. The series he did called ‘Intimacies’, with titles like ‘Money’, ‘Irreparable’ and ‘The Confession’, dissects the private lives of the Parisian bourgeoisie in ways that to Julian Barnes suggests ‘deep emotional dissonance’. In the process Vallotton played an important part in the revival of the woodcut, using a pared-down style with strong contrasts of black and white, influenced, as so many of his contemporaries were, by Japanese graphic art. How much did he also owe to Aubrey Beardsley? A lot of their work seems rather similar to me. There’s a print here of a nude on a bed playing with a cat which I thought at first was a Beardsley (who, incidentally, will be the subject of a show at Tate Britain next year).
In 1898 Vallotton married a wealthy widow, which freed him from financial worries, often a mixed blessing, creatively speaking, for artists. It was the beginning of a slippery slope. He decided to concentrate on the female nude, which meant, in essence, variations on Manet, Courbet and, above all, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Statuesque and inert, they’re fairly typical of the Paris Salon in its dotage. He also did portraits. But compare Vallotton’s humdrum portrait of Gertrude Stein (1907) – she called him ‘a Manet for the impecunious’ – to Picasso’s penetrating characterisation of her, painted two years earlier. By the end of this show I was tired of Vallotton’s acid palette, those icy nudes, the relentless stagecraft and, quite frankly, the vast quality gap between him and his idol Ingres. The final room, featuring his late still lives and landscapes, isn’t so much disquieting as just plain odd.
All the same, this is far from a duff exhibition, and if you enjoy your art with a frisson, you’ll certainly get one here. The RA in recent years has done yeoman’s work in shedding light on Honoré Daumier, James Ensor and other under-appreciated, oddball talents. And you’ll leave this show feeling that you’ve learnt enough about an artist who, while a suitable subject for the Sackler Galleries, is never going to make it to the main galleries downstairs.
Header image: Félix Vallotton, The Lie (Le Mensonge), 1897. Oil on cardboard, 24 x 33.4 cm. The Baltimore Museum of Art. The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland, BMA 1950.298. Photography: Mitro Hood