Thursday, May 23, 2013

In the Walled Garden

Félix Vallotton "Young Woman Painting"  1892  Location Unknown

Félix Edouard Vallotton (1865-1925) was a Swiss painter, printmaker and writer. He studied at the Académie Julian in Paris, and was influenced by Post-Impressionism, Symbolism and the taste for Japonisme that was all the rage in late 19th century Europe. Vallotton became an integral member of the Nabis, a group of Post-Impressionistic avant-garde artists and designers which formed in Paris around 1890.  Vallotton was also a revolutionary force in the world of woodcut, producing work unlike anything ever seen before.  In 1899 Vallotton married Gabrielle Rodrigues-Hendriques, a wealthy widow with three children, and was relieved of the pressure of having to earn his living. His print output diminished (he had worked as a graphic designer and illustrator) and he spent more time painting, developing an idiosyncratic style wholly independent of the artistic mainstream.

Vallotton is one of my favorite artists of all times which is odd because he has often been described as a deep-dyed misogynist. For instance, he once wrote (in a novel), ""What great evil has man committed that he deserves this terrifying partner called woman? It seems to me that with such violently contradictory thoughts and so clearly opposed impulses, the only possible relationship between the sexes is that of victor and vanquished." It could be true that this fictional dialogue reflected his own feelings but  I suspect that he was just rather mindlessly echoing the trendy Decadent/Symbolist theme of woman as the personification of evil.  As an aesthetic theme I find it all a bit silly, and amusing rather than threatening. I'll cite Felicien Rops and Fernand Khnopff as prime examplars of the woman-as-deliciously-attractive-yet-destructive-force crowd, but even just take a look at the better known Edvard Munch's paintings of sinful women from about the same period and you will better understand the context of the erotically-charged misogynism which spread like wildfire across many European cultures at around this time period. Of course, it seems obvious that this trendy Evil Woman theme was merely a reaction to women beginning to claim some measure of autonomy in society, something which was just starting to happen about this time, politically and socially. The nascent feminist movement caused a reaction of fear, uneasiness and dread in the established order, feelings which some artists dressed up in the darkly romantic garb of their time. In any case, this particular straightforward painting by Vallotton of a young woman painting in a garden conveys only dispassionate sympathy for a young person transitioning from the awkwardness of adolescence into adulthood, this feeling reinforced by the burgeoning plant-life of the setting.

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