Active among French intimists at the end of the 19th century, Félix Vallotton, born in Switzerland, worked as an illustrator for Parisian magazines such as the Anarchist The New Times. His art adds a surprising intrigue to “Private Lives: Home and Family in the Art of the Nabis” at the Portland Art Museum in Oregon; as fellow painters and printmakers Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, and Édouard Vuillard celebrated their own mothers, babies, and wives in bourgeois interiors and gardens, Vallotton probed darker scenes of adultery and seduction. And as his friends turned to color lithography to study modern life, Vallotton chose woodcut, a technically demanding medium he mastered like no other of his generation.
His brilliant graphic sense produced Privacy, a series of ten engravings representing couples in the interiors of houses or hotels, published in 1898. Vallotton relied on the most reductive formal means – the simple contrast of black on white – to establish richly ambiguous scenarios , barely clarified by suggestive titles inscribed at the bottom of each block: The lie, The irreparable, Where Five hours (that hour when French men generally met their mistresses). Betrayal and blame are widely attributed: In the Munch-like scene of The triumph, a ruthless wife disdains her distraught husband; in Extreme measure, it is the woman in tears who is devastated. The lady in formal dress Money seems insensitive to the argument of his male companion, his intentions abstruse. Vallotton literally puts him on the dark side, merging his figure with the shadows. Ironically, a year after creating this image, the artist left his own longtime mistress to marry a wealthy widow, for money. He was miserable forever.
MoneyThe composition of is remarkable, two thirds entirely devoted to plain black. In an equally bold move, to undo the edit, Vallotton cut out his wooden blocks and compiled a one-sheet, text-less graphic novel featuring an evocative detail of each print in Privacy. One thinks of Zola, but also of Chris Ware, as these silent vignettes of passion and alienation form a disjunctive narrative of intimate sex in the modern world of Vallotton.