There’ve been two key trends in art exhibitions recently – the blockbuster and the overlooked artist. Now, one of these I’m enjoying a lot more than the other. After all, even I know there is a limit to how many Picasso shows the world needs (she says with a heavy dose of shade knowing that the RA has recently announced Picasso as its opening exhibition for 2020) but, more fundamentally, because the overlooked artist avenue has brought with it some absolute delights as well as an implicit challenge to the accepted canon of Western art that is dominated by white men.
Enter Felix Vallotton, a turn-of-the-century Swiss artist who the RA believes fits this category too. Hence why they’ve brought together over 100 works of his from public and private collections across Europe and the U.S to, supposedly, “demonstrate his unique vision.”
Only, here’s the thing. Felix was a white man and so I headed to the RA a little sceptical on this as, let’s be real, if you are a white male artist with all the access and privilege in the world and you still haven’t made it as a success then perhaps you are just a bit crap.
And that’s exactly what I felt after visiting this show. My fears were validated.
You see, Felix’s works really aren’t that good. They’re heavily stylised. Glossed over to within an inch of their lives. Nudes are robbed of their sensuality or erotica, and faces on strangers are impassive masks giving nothing away about their sitter. Interiors are bland, landscapes are awful.
So, what’s a girl to do as I’ve no doubt the curators at the RA know a bit about what they are doing. Why did they pick Felix Vallotton?
I suspect a lot of the rationale was to do with attitude. Felix’s work is quite significantly different in style and tone from his peer group. There’s little influence of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism to be found in these artworks. Rather, the alienation and isolation feel a bit Hopper-esque rather than attempts to reflect languid beauty.
This was also an artist who was profoundly affected by the First World War, which may well have been an underlying reason for the hard emotional edges in his images, the sense of distance between people even when they are standing together, and the landscapes largely devoid of human presence.
So, the RA may well have achieved its objectives in showcasing Felix’s unique vision – in that his works are noticeably different from the French and Spanish painters who dominated art at this time – but the challenge is they do not reflect much in the way of technical excellence either.
There’s some nice touches – a still life where the bright red skin of a pepper is reflected on a nearby knife fooling the viewer to momentarily think they have glanced blood on a blade – but as a body of work they do not reflect an artist whose output has been cruelly passed over.
Royal Academy of Arts, London, to 29 September, 2019.
1. Félix Vallotton, The Lie (Le Mensonge), 1897. Oil on cardboard, 24 x 33.4 cm. The Baltimore Museum of Art. The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland, BMA 1950.298. Photography: Mitro Hood
2. Félix Vallotton, The Visit (La Visite), 1899. Gouache on cardboard, 55.5 x 87 cm. Kunsthaus Zürich. Acquired 1909. © Kunsthaus Zürich
3. Félix Vallotton, Sandbanks on the Loire (Des Sables au bord de la Loire), 1923. Oil on canvas, 73 x 100 cm. Kunsthaus Zürich. Acquired 1938. © Kunsthaus Zürich