In a transfixing picture by the Swiss artist Félix Vallotton (1865-1925), a woman in a long red dress is tightly entwined with a black-clad man on a sofa. She rests her head on his shoulder, mouth to his ear. He clasps her waist, leaning into her whispers. All seems set for a fine romance.
But she is very nearly slipping off his knee, and it is impossible to know if she’s murmuring, since most of her face is in shadow; just as it is impossible to know if he is listening – or scheming. His eyes are closed in rapture, as it seems, but his brows are tellingly arched and his mouth appears suspiciously smug. The painting is called The Lie.
So who is lying, and what is the lie? That she loves him for himself, not his money; that he loves her too, that he really will marry her one day? That there is nobody else? The composition is divided – on one side the couple, on the other a pressure of insinuating scarlet decor – just as the picture divides its audience. Is it the man or the woman (or both) telling the lies?
Vallotton is a strange case in his own right; very famous in his native Switzerland, hardly shown here. The last British exhibition was in 1976. His works are scattered all over Europe, too often in private collections. One of the largest and most startling paintings at the Royal Academy is of the Bon Marché department store in Paris, famous from Zola’s novel The Ladies’ Delight, teeming with shoppers and brilliantly coloured goods – parasols, bottles, ribbons, pyramids of candy – all glowing in the gaslight. It is normally hidden in a Swiss bank.
Born to a strict Protestant family in Lausanne, Vallotton escaped to study art in Paris at the age of 16. The city remains a perpetual curiosity. There are weird vignettes – a painting of a veiled woman whose poodle leaps into the most alien shape on the boulevard; a milling scrum of fashionable Parisians staring hard at something which their obsession obscures from our sight. Small children very often trying to get away from their parents.
Vallotton notices the advent of the public telephone, the starkness of the new electric lighting, the brawl in the cafe where the white-clothed table is about to crash to the floor in a maelstrom of alcohol and rage. He notices his own watchful eye.
This is the subject of Self-portrait at the Age of Twenty, with which this show opens. So precise it’s more like limning, in the Holbein tradition, this unnerving image shows the young Vallotton against the chill blue-green background of northern art. To see is to know: and how well he seems to know himself already – the disquieting boy against the quiet backdrop, turning to us with his sidelong eye.
And Vallotton’s vision is uniquely strange. His paintings are generally compact and small, with sultry hues and the seductive brushwork of the Nabis (he was a lifelong friend of Vuillard). But there is almost invariably a narrative puzzle at their heart. Why does the invalid on the left of La Malade face away from us in her bed, which is turned towards the wall, while the maid on the right enters the room like a confident starlet? Two women at odds, as if in quite separate worlds?
What is really going on in The Visit, an alarming scenario in which another couple – she in coat and feather hat, he gripping her tight by the hand – stand at the threshold of a room in which the very furniture seems to be conspiring with a possible assault. A door opens on to a lamplit bedroom, waiting like a trap. Unless of course this gentleman is paying?
And aren’t the biblical tables turned in Chaste Suzanne, in which a knowing young woman entertains two elderly men, light glinting viciously off their bald heads, in the depths of a plush banquette? Relationships are always ambiguous. Even the lone man by a window, brown suit mingling with the brown of the curtains, seems to be hiding as he watches the street below.
In the woodcuts with which he found fame, Vallotton himself often looks down on Paris from roughly the same vantage point. The streets are running wild. Crowds protest, surging away from some unseen threat, coats flailing, top hats scattered. Rain pours down on a rival flood of umbrellas. Brutal police with comedy moustaches descend like the Keystone Cops. But behind them are the bodies of people who are dying or already dead. This print is neither quite realism nor outright satire.
Vallotton’s prints are astonishing in their sheer graphic force and register. His pure blacks burn fierce against the pristine white page, giving off a coruscating afterimage. He can make the white panel of a window somehow indicate darkest night, and turn diagonal black lines into a vision of thin air. It is no surprise that his Parisian scenes are reproduced in newspapers to this day. In L’Assassinat, murder takes place in a bedroom so perfectly conveyed in a few simplified objects it could be an early New Yorker cartoon.
Yet Vallotton is a hard artist to bring into focus. This is not just because he worked in so many different genres – landscape, portrait, striking still lifes, like the painting of five gleaming peppers lying next to a knife, which seems stained with their redness, or is it with blood? There is the abiding question of his tone.
It is difficult to associate the pungent humour of his large reprise of Manet’s Olympia – in which the black maid at the back now appears front of stage (Vallotton’s blocking is superb) smoking a sardonic cigarette – with the haunting beauty of his empty landscapes.
And it is nearly impossible to believe that the same artist could have produced the long sequence of shadowy interiors that look forward to Alfred Hitchcock and Edward Hopper, as well as the even longer series of terrible female nudes, lumpen, cold and crude.
But at his best, Vallotton’s scenes are almost proverbial in their miniature narratives. There is a horrifying image of a woman searching a cupboard by night that summons our common fear of never finding that crucial and possibly life-altering document in all the chaos. And The Pond shows a spreading shape of depthless black water that seems to creep forwards into the innocent green meadow of our terra firm like a living creature. Once seen, never forgotten.