21 November 2013
In the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam from 14 February until 1 June 2014
What smoulders under the cool detachment in the paintings and prints of the Swiss-French artist Félix Vallotton (1865-1925)? This can be discovered in the exhibition Félix Vallotton. Fire beneath the ice in the Van Gogh Museum from 14 February 2014. Circa 60 paintings, on loan from international museums and private collections, together with 40 prints from the Van Gogh Museum's collection will provide an insight into Vallotton's fascinating oeuvre, in which nothing is what it seems.
Fire beneath the ice
The Van Gogh Museum has a large collection of works on paper by the Nabis (Prophets in Hebrew), the important group of French artists who embarked on a new path towards a highly decorative style of art during the late 19th century. In addition to Vallotton's paintings, the Van Gogh Museum will show from its own collection a large number of innovative woodcuts by the artist, a prominent member of the Nabis and a contemporary of Vincent van Gogh.
Vallotton started as a portrait painter, but became internationally renowned for his impressive black-and-white woodcuts. It is innovative work with an unparalleled style and atmosphere: the woodcuts simmer with an underlying tension or threat, whereas their humour is often infused with a great deal of social criticism. Vallotton was a master in observation, a moody, acerbic man who kept the world at bay, but who observed it sharply in all its cruelty and absurdity. His paintings present everyday life, at the same time imbuing it with an enigmatic strangeness. The detached presentation of his subjects sharply contrasts with the underlying emotions. What occurs between the figures, what smoulders under this smooth exterior, which emotions shimmer under this cool, detached style of painting? To put it briefly: what is 'the fire beneath the ice'?
Portraits, landscapes, still lives, nudes and cityscapes
Experimenting with woodcuts, studying Japanese prints and being interested in photography, Vallotton rapidly developed a unique style that is characterized by a smooth finish, a 'cool' atmosphere and a sophisticated colour scheme. Most striking are lines and contours, hard edges and the absence of a three-dimensional effect. His subjects include various genres, from portraits, landscapes and still lives to nudes and cityscapes, representing traditional themes in a novel manner. By introducing the following seven themes, the exhibition will present a large overview of Vallotton's oeuvre, his aesthetic and social ideas and his complex personality.
Vallotton's still lives and nudes show that he was a master in painting matter, whether it constitutes skin, flesh, a flower or a fruit. The woman in Back from the sea looks at us as if we interrupted her reading. Vallotton pays a great deal of attention to the representation of the fabrics, her bronzed skin and bright blue eyes and the effect of the shiny dress. The dress dropping from her shoulder is suggestive of an erotic tension, what we see and what we expect underneath.
The power of a patch of black
Vallotton's woodcuts are expressions of a strong visual language of black surfaces and a few white lines. His prints dealt with social issues, such as police attacking demonstrators, or an execution. He also represented the intimate lives of the well-to-do middle classes in a series of interiors bringing to the fore the tensions between men and women. His graphic oeuvre reached its highest development in the series of ten woodcuts titled Intimités (Intimacies), with encounters of a man and a woman in intriguing scenes with an erotic tension and with suggestive titles.
Vallotton transformed his landscapes in such a way that all depth disappeared from them. He did not paint from nature, but based his paintings on drawings and photos. He created imaginary landscapes that are not literally true to nature. Flat areas, simplified shapes - inspired by Japanese prints - and a heightened sense of melancholy characterize them. A marvellous example is The ball, in which Vallotton combines two perspectives merging into each other.
Mythology and war
In his paintings with mythological scenes Vallotton commented on his own times. The portrayal of women as domineering, aggressive creatures corresponded with how many men felt about women's emancipation during the late 19th-century. Vallotton showed in his painting Hatred, in which a man looks down contemptuously upon his furious, intransigent wife, how he perceived the true relationship between man and woman. The outcome of actual violence was portrayed in the impressive paintings he made about the First World War.
A series of scenes of a man and a woman in a theatrical setting: a middle-class, domestic environment in which seduction or betrayal occurs. These works tell us a great deal about Vallotton's personality and his view on women and marriage.
Idealism and purity of line
Vallotton's portraits and nudes seem idealized and timeless, yet realistic at the same time. He emphasizes the outline, as influenced by traditional masters, such as Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.
In Vallotton's paintings of nudes, the soft-tinted bodies contrast with the cold, bare environment. Sensuality remains at a further remove, the women are unapproachable.
Sunday lectures, Friday nights and catalogue for further study
Visitors can attend the Sunday lectures and Friday nights, which focus on Vallotton. The exhibition is accompanied by the catalogue Félix Vallotton. Fire beneath the ice, in Dutch and English.
The exhibition has been organised by the Musée d’Orsay and the Réunion des Musées Nationaux – Grand Palais in Paris, in collaboration with the Van Gogh Museum and the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum in Tokyo, and Nikkei Inc., with special support by the Musées d’Art et d’Histoire, Genève and the Musée Cantonal des Beaux-Arts, Lausanne. The exhibition is supported by the Swiss art council Pro Helvetia. The exhibition will be open from 14 February until 1 June, every day from 9 a.m.