To perceive is to see Felix Vallotton’s genius at work

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

The art of the Swiss painter Felix Vallotton is both deceptive and loaded with revelation. On the surface it has the knowing sophistication and social references of other fin-de-siècle art — Vallotton was active from the 1880s until his death in 1925 — but it also cuts much deeper, pushing us toward a realization of how we perceive.

The exhibition at the Mitsubishi Ichigokan, “Felix Vallotton: the Fire beneath the Ice,” is well-named because it hints at this dichotomy between the cool surface of things and the poignant detail or potent vignette that lies within. This is the same distinction that exists between sight and perception, which are two different though related things: sight being the light that floods into our eyes, while perception is that part of our vision with which we engage emotionally or mentally in some way.

A good example of how Vallotton’s art illustrates this dichotomy is “Le Ballon” (1899). What is remarkable about this picture is the high angle, looking down. This reduces the view to a patch of ground edged by trees, without any sky or other elements to create a sense of three-dimensional space.

This has a flattening effect that evokes the sense of undifferentiated sight of the unengaged eye. On this strangely stultifying and claustrophobic background, however, Vallotton has dabbed in the image of a little girl, her pinafore dress fluttering as she pursues her brightly colored ball. The static and flat nature of the background serves as a contrasting device, emphasizing the sense of movement evoked by the flighty figure.

In his early years, Valotton was associated with Les Nabis, a Post-Impressionist group whose name literally meant “The Prophets,” due to their intense seriousness, evangelical aura and hirsuteness. The group was inspired by Paul Gauguin’s quest for simple purity in art, and, besides Vallotton, also included Maurice Denis, Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard.

Their essential challenge was to eke out a new artistic space that didn’t rely on the illusionism of academic style or the soft, enhanced realism of Impressionism. This led to art that was more rarefied and symbolic in nature, something that pushed the movement closer to the poetic currents of the time. But it also led to art that was more analytical — breaking compositions down into simplified shapes and colors, and experimenting with empty space.

Vallotton’s art, in particular, was pushed down this analytical route when he started to work in woodcuts. His first woodcut, made in 1891, was a portrait of the poet Paul Verlaine.

One of the notable features of the exhibition is the large number of these woodcuts. Initially with a satirical bent, they capture the spirit of the age, but Vallotton soon moved on to increasingly innovative designs that set white figures against what is effectively a black chiaroscuro background. This created images that once again push our eyes toward certain shapes and motifs, in the process making us more aware of the dynamic of perception.

In his best print works, such as “La Bain” (1894) and “La Symphonie” (1897), broken and almost disembodied shapes — the edge of bath, a towel wrapped around a hand, a portion of dress framed by the legs of piano — are assembled by our eyes in an almost jigsaw-like way to give the final picture.

Like any artist in that fast-changing period, Vallotton, with his daring use of composition and experimentation with perception, came in for a fair amount of criticism. His painting was often dismissed as dry, over-precise and emotionally cold. This is partially true, as there is little hint of sentimentality in his work, but this is also the reason why he was one of the inspirations for the New Objectivity movement that sprang up in Germany after World War I, as well as for the “hard-boiled” paintings of the American painter Edward Hopper.

But in place of maudlin sentimentality and the feathery nostalgia that we now associate with so much Impressionist painting, there is a sense of intensity and edgy visual excitement to much of his painting and print work.

Often we get a sense that we have “zoomed in” on the image. “La Chaste Suzanne” (1922), a modern-day reworking of the Biblical story of Susanna and the Elders, has an unexpected intimacy. The shadows and pink edge of the sofa pull us toward the bald heads of the lewd old men, putting their case to the young lady who, in Vallotton’s treatment, seems a lot more worldly and open to persuasion than her Biblical namesake.

A similar effect is achieved by an earlier work, “Le Diner, Effete de Lampe” (1899), where the brightly lit table seems to pull us out of the shadows and into the small family circle. Works like this reveal Vallotton’s genius.

“Felix Vallotton: the Fire beneath the Ice” at the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum runs till Sept. 23; open 10 a.m.- 6 p.m. (Fri. till 8 pm.). ¥1,600. Closed Mon. mimt.jp/vallotton/top.php