When he was good, he was breathtaking

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When he was good, he was breathtaking
The Lie, 1897. Oil on artist’s board, 9–1/ 2 × 13–1/3 in. (24 × 33.3 cm) The Baltimore Museum of Art. The Cone Collection, formed by Dr Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland, BMA 1950.298

by Roberta Smith

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Swiss painter and printmaker Félix Vallotton was an intriguing, talented but slippery artist. From painting to painting in “Felix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet,” a small survey of his career, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you often don’t quite know what to expect next in terms of style or subject, even within the same year.

They begin with the soulful “Self-Portrait at the Age of 20” from 1885, just after three years of study at the Académie Julian in Paris. It shows the artist looking wise beyond his years, already adept at a suavely brushed surface redolent of Manet, Ingres and Degas. In “The Sick Girl,” a sparkling interior scene of 1892, his realist style hardens to such perfection that it dazzles but also seems slightly cold.

At the other extreme is “Street Scene in Paris,” from 1897, which has the flattened, rough-edged shapes of the small postimpressionist cohort that called itself the Nabi. The group included the artist’s good friend, Édouard Vuillard, and Vallotton himself, although he didn’t share their preference for images of cozy domesticity. Also from 1897 is his portrait “Thadée Natanson,” in which realism takes on a stiffening naïveté that evokes the self-taught French artist Henri Rousseau. Vallotton, who wrote criticism for a newspaper in Lausanne, Switzerland (where he was born in 1865), gave Rousseau an early laudatory review.

Further along, in “Nude in the Red Room” (another from 1897), Vallotton’s realism intensifies into artifice; the sleek, curving, almost serpentine female subject may be based on a photograph. The painting confirms that while Vallotton ignored most of modernism, he influenced such surrealists as Dalí and Magritte, and also the Neue Sachlichkeit (new realism) painters of Weimar Germany.

By this point in the show, it becomes clear why Vallotton is not considered a first-rate painter. Perhaps he was excessively skilled with too many options at his fingertips. The variety here sometimes resembles a group show, or a solo of some extra-early postmodern artist who simply played the field.

It helps that the show begins with a tiny unforgettable gallery where Vallotton’s talent stays in one place: It is devoted to his groundbreaking woodblock prints of the 1890s, which made him famous, provided entry into the Parisian avant-garde and made his place in modernist art history. Their daring black and white compositions depict some of the pleasures, but more often skewer the hypocrisies and inequities of Parisian life. Vallotton did not see life as full of happy endings.

He made his first woodblock prints in 1891, inspired by the innovations of Japanese artists, eliminating their rich colors while exploiting their practice of cutting with rather than against the grain. It facilitated the curving shapes and lines basic to his formal wit.

Within a year Vallotton had a thriving, if not highly remunerative career. His terse exercises in dark and light appeared in periodicals, illustrated books and portfolios in Paris, then London and as far as Chicago. They were nearly instantly understood as radical, and by the mid-90s Vallotton was a regular illustrator for Le Cri de Paris, a left-wing magazine and the like-minded journal La Revue Blanche, which also covered culture (and was founded by Alexandre and Thadée Natanson).

The woodblocks have the compression and legibility of cartoons and news photos, the formal daring of abstract art and the literary punch of modern short stories. They portray action in the streets, as in “The Demonstration,” in which gendarmes wade, swords swinging, into a group of anarchists (with whom the artist sympathized). Bodies seem to fly overhead until the image’s spatial inventiveness asserts itself: The protesters aren’t airborne, they’re actually lying on the street, left behind as the melee surges toward us. “The Charge” reverses this: The crowd dashes frantically toward the top of the image; advancing police not yet in the picture will soon fill the white, empty street lower down.

Other scenes of everyday life show pedestrians opening umbrellas; an elderly woman being gingerly rescued from beneath a carriage horse; and well-dressed ladies in a department store, examining linens like connoisseurs. In voyeuristic views of opulent Parisian interiors, lone musicians practice their instruments; naked women loll on patterned textiles and unhappy marriages and love affairs unfold. If the 19th-century had film noir, these would be the storyboards.

Vallotton’s people are stereotypes personalized by highly specific expression, gesture and posture rendered with utmost economy. See the different reactions rippling across the sea of upturned faces at the bottom of “The World’s Fair VI: Fireworks,” as strands of light descend into the night sky.

Black increasingly overpowers white. In “Money,” from the 1898 Intimacies series, a young woman in white stands at a window, her face a study in quiet anguish. A not-young man in black stands very close, his hand open. He could be offering money for sexual favors, or delivering news of the couple’s bankruptcy. Either way, it’s bad, and underscored in purely visual terms. The man is one with the solid black of the room behind him, which is most of the print.

Vallotton does much of his best painting in the late 1890s and early 1900s, when he added some of his own narrative tension to the textured paint handling and soft colors of the Nabis. The bereaved mood of “Woman in Purple Dress, Under the Lamp” of 1898, focuses on the blank, masklike face of the seemingly numb woman, modeled by Hélène Chatenay, Vallotton’s companion of a decade. She is seen in their apartment, slumped on a sofa above which hangs Vuillard’s “Large Interior With Six Figures,” a recent gift from that artist. Her face is dejected, a gray mask; her arm rests woodenly on the table before her, as if paralyzed or wounded.

Vallotton also sought to imbue his paintings with the prints’ extreme simplicity and aggressive blacks, now offset by strong bright colors, especially red. One standout is “The Visit” (1899) a velvety vignette of a man welcoming a woman into a hushed apartment at dusk. In the shadowy “The Visit by Lamplight,” two women sit, shrouded in inky ominousness, rendered with paint handling so uncharacteristically brusque it recalls Walter Sickert, the British painter of disquiet.

After 1900 Vallotton seems to go into a decline that steepened after 1910. It’s hard to be sure because with around 40 paintings and as many prints, the show is not definitive. It doesn’t help that the effort — organized by Dita Amory of the Met and Ann Dumas of the Royal Academy of Arts — has shed 10 paintings since it was seen in London last summer. Most were important; several were unlike anything here.

The change in Vallotton’s art is often attributed to his marriage, in 1899, to a wealthy woman, by which he joined the haute bourgeois he so despised. It also removed two anchors: his relationship with Hélène Chatenay and his prints. He could afford to paint full time. He also became the reluctant stepfather of three children, a predicament encapsulated in “Dinner by Lamplight” (1899), a darkened scene in which the artist depicts himself as semi-present — a cardboard-thin silhouette — facing the bright curious face of a little girl across the table.

A rising animus toward women reaches a zenith of sorts in “The Chaste Suzanne” of 1922, which verges on cartoon kitsch and reverses the biblical tale of Susanna and the Elders, casting the woman as a sly trickster. Two decades into his marriage, Vallotton mused in his journal, “What great evil has man committed that he deserves this terrifying partner called woman?”

But three paintings from after 1900 stand out for their size and ambition, if also their increasing academicism. The first is marvelously strange: “The Five Painters” (1902-03), a group portrait of the Nabis (Vallotton included). The dark-suited artists almost merge with the dark background, while their stiffly painted hands, faces and hair treatments, stand out. It is a little as if Vallotton were trying to outdo Rembrandt’s group portraits by way of Rousseau.

Next is Vallotton’s 1907 portrait of Gertrude Stein, an exercise in too-solid gleaming flesh and a conservative answer to Picasso’s brilliant proto-cubist portrait of the writer. The Met owns the Picasso and has added it to the show. The battle of old against new is, surprisingly, a draw.

Finally, Vallotton’s “The White and the Black” (1913) takes a limp pass at inverting the power dynamic of the imperious white courtesan and black maid of Manet’s “Olympia.” Here the nude white woman is a drowsy innocent. Her worldly black companion, dressed in blue-green silk, sits at the end of the bed, thinking and smoking. It’s a confounding picture, conceptually arresting — visually, not so much.

As the first extensive Vallotton show in New York in decades, this exhibition is invaluable, despite its problems. It reintroduces an artist who achieved early greatness in the relatively modest medium of prints and then either failed or declined to follow a single path in painting. His work is a fascinating, frustrating thorn in the side of the modernist ideal of wholeness.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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