7 Dec 2013

Felix Valloton, paintings and engravings

I have just visited the major exhibition of paintings and wood engravings of the Swiss-born (he became French in 1900) artist Felix Valotton (1865-1925), which is currently showing at the Grand Palais in Paris. It is an impressive and revealing show and is well worth seeing if you are in Paris before January 20th 2014.

The graphic strength and clarity of Valloton's wood engravings are constantly impressive and show his mastery of composition, as well as of the technique itself

This show, with works from all over the world, including many from private collections, is impressive not only because of its size, but also for its scope. It covers all periods of this underrated artist's work, including many of his remarkable wood engravings and illustrations (examples above) which first gained him recognition, and a large number of paintings of styles which range from the realistic to the hyper-realistic, passing through symbolism and the more minimalist "flat area" style connected with the Nabi movement to which he belonged for a while.

The painting above is an example of how Valloton's engraving work (see the first to illustrations for example), and the very structured compositions that these entailed, guided the composition in much of his painting. The colours of this reproduction are a bit off the real thing, but you get the idea I hope.

The Grand Palais show is also revealing because it explores in some depth Valloton's more personal and sometimes obsessive world whose techniques and style owe quite a lot, it seems to me, to surrealist painters while remaining close to a form of realism of an almost neo-classical type, although many paintings have a clearly dream-like atmosphere and composition..This is particular the case of the many paintings that use the female body as their main subject or theme. To give you an idea of how these nude paintings can hover between different worlds, the upper one below seems very much in the surrealistic spirit whilst the lower one is stylised but in a neo-classical vein.

I sometimes felt a little uneasy in front of some of his paintings where the naked bodies had a somewhat morbid feel to them, however successful the formal aspects of the painting, like colour or composition, may be. 

Valloton's landscapes touch on quite another aspect of his painting, which is the use of different perspectives in the same work, as if he shifted his viewpoint during the preparation. Apparently he used sketches (or photographs later on) made from different viewpoints and then made his final painting in a studio.

This painting of a child chasing a ball has both a vertical, plunging persepective as seen from a window above (and as seen by a camera), and a horizontal one for the figures in the background. The result is of two pictures in one, just as the human eye shifts its direction to focus on two planes and events. Shapes and colours are simplified for pictorial reasons but remain more or less realistic.

With few exceptions, colours, as well as forms, are idealized and arranged rather than realistically observed or "copied". Careful composition, even if it seems at times to be off-hand like a snapshot, is very much a part of Valloton's approach. Talking of snapshots, he also used a camera as a sketchbook as soon as small Kodak cameras became available, and this imposed spontaneity in the composition shows in several paintings.  

Man and woman in a theatre. This clearly shows the "camera eye" of Valloton

Other paintings, like this landscape above, have a dream-like atmosphere that is imparted by Valloton's use of colours and the idealised forms that he gives to "natural" objects. We are not in the naïve vision of Douanier Rousseau, but neother is this reality as seen by landscape painters like the impressionists. Yet is seems to owe something to both, and could probably not have existed without Gauguin either.

Even more other-wordly, or dream-like, is this landscape, called "The sunray". I would be interested to see some of David Hockney's recent landscape paintings alongside this one. Here goes.....

The size of this 2011 painting by Hockney, called "The Arrival of Spring" is much bigger. It is in several panels and takes up a whole wall, but, although painted some 90 years after the Valloton vision of woodland, I think they have quite a few things in common.

One more from Valloton to finsh off, although I expect I will be returning to his work at some point.

This is a late painting and is very big. The green hue has faded in this photograph, but the strength of the composition has resisted. A touch of William Blake perhaps?