It’s something of a truism that the life of an artist heavily influences his or her work. No exhibition makes this clearer than “Utrillo & Valadon” at the Seiji Togo Memorial Sompo Japan Nipponkoa Museum of Art, which pairs the art of Maurice Utrillo, the famous painter of Parisian cityscapes, and his mother, Suzanne Valadon, famous as a model and an artist in her own right.
But while the connection between biography and artistic output is always significant and interesting, the fascinating point about this exhibition is that it also allows us to speculate on how the relationship between these two artists influenced them and their art. In particular, one suspects that Utrillo’s art could not have been what it was without the input of his mother, even if this had a negative aspect.
The most obvious thing that strikes the visitor is that almost all of Valadon’s works feature people — mainly portraits and nudes — although she also developed a skilful sideline in still lifes. The impression this gives is of a women fascinated by beauty — her own and that of others — and in the thick of society. One almost imagines a post-impressionist version of Kim Kardashian, minus the obsession with “selfies,” as there is only a single self portrait, done later in life at the age of 62, along with a sketch from a few decades earlier.
Given that she was very much in the social whirl, it is not surprising to learn that she started out as a circus acrobat, before injuries sustained in her mid-teens forced her into the easier — although far from respectable profession — of artistic modeling. Nor are we surprised to learn that her son’s birth father was unknown, and that subsequently the boy was neglected by his mother, who remained busy with her work and love affairs.
There are a few signs of maternal affection, such as a chalk sketch Valadon did of her son when he was 12 years old, but overall the sense of neglect is palpable, especially in Utrillo’s own work, where it is difficult not to read his paintings of Parisian streets — deserted or sparsely peopled by vague ciphers — as evidence of an inner loneliness that stemmed from a poor relationship with his mother.
The real clue, in my opinion, is the recurrence of the Sacred Heart Basilica of Montmartre. This church, with its maternal white dome, is often shown in the distance or blocked by other buildings, as in “Rue Saint Rustique in Montemarte” (1938-40), where it is seen at the end of a narrowing lane. Once the idea takes hold that the Sacred Heart is a stand-in for a standoffish mother, it is definitely hard to shake.
“Exposition Suzanne Valadon et Maurice Utrillo” at Seiji Togo Memorial Sompo Japan Nipponkoa Museum of Art runs till June 28; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.). ¥1,200. Closed Mon. www.sjnk-museum.org/en