News
Paintings of Felix Vallotton
The New York Times
Ken Johnson
12 February 2010

The Swiss artist FĂ©lix Vallotton (1865-1925) is much admired for his elegantly simplified, erotic woodcut prints, which were perfectly in tune with the Parisian avant-garde's infatuation with all things Japanese. Why he has never been as famous as a painter is explained by this revelatory show of canvases from 1905 to 1912, all depicting attractive young women in different states of dress and dishabille. Neither Cubist nor Fauvist, his paintings exist on a continuum between Puvis de Chavannes and Balthus, who surely must have been influenced by them. Himself inspired by Ingres, Vallotton produced a weird, frankly lubricious classicism that Modernist critics could only view as an academic dead end.

Vallotton confected his images of nude, zaftig young women from drawings and photographs. Rendered in muted colors, smooth, dry brushwork and with empty backgrounds, the paintings have a strange, moody ethereality. The voluptuous woman with the disheveled mass of red hair and the yearning, skyward gaze in 'Le Printemps'(1908) could be a new Mary Magdalene, as carnal as she is spiritual.

The portraits are in some ways more compelling than the comparatively generic nudes. They look more like particular people, and they seem to have personalities that the nudes lack. The woman in 'Femme brune assise de face, avec guitare'(1913) leans forward with her elbow on her knee and her chin resting in her hand, dangling a yellow book from her other hand. Staring into space from deep-set, heavily browed eyes, she seems uncannily alive and thoughtful. You'd like to ask her what she's been reading.

-KEN JOHNSON