It was quite a revelation to walk around this intriguing exhibition of work at the Royal Academy and realise that the real Vallotton was a witty, very clever, modernist painter who absorbed the spare narratives of Japanese art and applied it to depictions of hectic city life in Paris. He started out as a prodigiously clever artist with a great feel for oil paint and observation. His early portrait shows a serious young man with no hint of the humour which clearly lay within.
He was a great admirer of the French painter, Ingres, renowned for his precision and detail but this aspect of his work was soon abandoned when he discovered Japanese art, and the impact that can be achieved using wood block prints. His prints of Parisian life are utterly wonderful. They were primarily illustrations so the need for narrative is obvious but they are so full of action, character and caricature. I’d not seen those before.
And then we get the rather more saucy series of prints depicting the habits of the roués and cads about town who would be sure to call by their mistress’s home at around 5.00pm – on the way home from work. Did this really happen? Well, I guess it must have, but what fun for Valletton to poke fun at these uneasy relationships in a series of prints which depict the ups and downs, stresses and strains of these affaires.
Valletton’s life changed dramatically when he married Gabrielle, a wealthy widow with children. He returned to painting – interestingly his support of choice was cardboard for many of his works – and captured domestic life with uneasy accuracy. Just how happy was family life, one wonders.
This exhibition provides an intriguing glimpse into his life. I hadn’t thought of Valletton as a stand-alone artist – he’s usually lumped together with Vuillard and Bonnard who were great friends and concerned with similar themes. But I’m so pleased to have seen those woodcut prints, they are really something.
The exhibition is on at the Royal Academy until 29th September.