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Thursday, April 9, 2020

Vallotton’s Modern Paris Reveals the Greatness of Art in Turbulent Times

Félix Vallotton (Swiss, 1865–1925), La Modiste (The Milliner),
1894, woodcut, 17.8 × 22.5 cm (image), 25 × 32.6 cm (sheet).
William Grimm Fund, 2014.1201

Turn-of-the-century Paris was the place to be. Like today, the city was a major cultural hub for the arts, but in the decades surrounding 1900 (known as the “Belle Époque”) it also was at the forefront of rapid societal changes. Even the streets were new. From the mid- to late 1800s, a massive urban redevelopment project led by Baron Georges Haussmann replaced narrow and chaotic medieval streets with an orderly system of wide boulevards and uniform, stone buildings—the Paris we know today. Cafés, theaters, shops, train stations, and parks were filled with bustling crowds in search of the latest fashions and entertainment. While some artists and intellectuals considered this new Paris to be vulgar (famously, around 40 French writers and artists signed a petition against the Eiffel Tower, which was completed in 1899), it provided ample material for those who wanted to record the pace of modern life.

Eugène Atget (French, 1856-1927), Eclipse, 1911, gelatin silver print.
Anonymous Gift, 1963.113. This photograph of a crowd watching a solar
eclipse shows Haussmann’s modernized Paris in the background.

Swiss printmaker and painter Félix Vallotton (1865–1925) joined those artists fascinated by the urban crowd, but Vallotton’s work has a darker twist. Living in Paris and eventually becoming a French citizen, Vallotton was linked to anarchist circles, making anti-authoritarian, anti-bourgeois illustrations for journals like La Revue Blanche. Many of his stark, black-and-white woodblock prints depict surprising violence: police brutality, anarchist bomb-throwers, and the chaos of a fleeing mob. Even in his series Intimités, which ostensibly depicts the private life of middle-class couples, themes of deception, greed, and hate simmer just beneath the surface decorum. Vallotton shows us modern Paris as a dystopia—a theater for capitalism and authoritarianism.

Vallotton takes an obsessive, and often ironic, approach to his subject matter. Consider his 1894 woodblock print showing a milliner’s (hatmaker’s) shop, La Modiste, from the WAM collection. The subject matter is an ordinary scene for this era, yet it is presented in a visually overwhelming manner. A forest of hats perched on stands is swarming with female shop assistants and customers, who examine the wares and themselves in a full-length mirror. In the foreground, two potential customers wearing fashionable jackets cock their heads, scrutinizing a hat held aloft by the milliner. Using a slight bird’s eye view, Vallotton plays with perspective to trap the viewer in this world, with neither windows nor ceiling for the eye to rest upon and escape. Is this an enchanting realm, or a trap?

Many of the shop assistants lean forward with raised hands and hunched shoulders, an attitude that can be read as helpful and meek, or over-eager, even vulture-like. Even the milliner—the woman in charge of this shop, who takes ownership of the scene by standing in the center of the composition—presents her wares with a deferential smile and shrug. With nuanced visual cues, Vallotton takes this ordinary scene and elevates it to the level of social commentary, even caricature. He shows us fashion as defined by commerce, and a world in which merchants and their customers morph uncomfortably into subjugated predators and oblivious prey, raising the question: who is in control?

La Modiste (detail)
La Modiste (detail)

Vallotton was certainly not the only artist to turn a critical eye to modern Parisian life, or to French consumerism and fashion as the capital continued to grow in cultural importance. For example, in the 1920s, the Surrealists took a special interest in the uncanny valley provided by mannequins, and prized photography that captured storefronts, such as the documentary street photography of Eugène Atget.

Eugène Atget (French, 1856-1927), Men’s Fashions,
1925, printed 1956, gelatin silver print.
Anonymous Gift, 1963.112.

While Vallotton remains an artist particularly interesting for his politics, his irony, and his misanthropic views of Parisian life, his work forms part of a broader story of art, one in which Parisians and the city of Paris play a central role in defining modern, urban life. What enchants a crowd of shoppers, or forms an uneasy mob? What does it mean to be a face in the crowd? To be a witness, or part of the spectacle?

Through the lens of current events in 2020, these artworks hit home in a new way, too. With the COVID-19 pandemic shuttering storefronts, quieting cities, and discouraging people from standing within six feet of one another, we may be prompted to view a work like La Modiste with renewed anxiety, or conversely, the warmth of nostalgia. As an art historian, I strive to set aside my personal, emotional interpretation of an artwork when researching it; to reveal the intent behind a work of art, it is important above all to understand the artist and his era. However, art can obtain new resonance for viewers through the lens of our own experiences, revealing to us meanings that the artist may never have envisioned. Though distant in time and place, Vallotton’s crowds still have the power to make us pause and consider our own modern moment, particularly with regard to our economic anxieties, and our attitude toward fellow city-dwellers. The power of this kind of reflection—of reaching into the past to think about the present—reveals the greatness of art.

—Olivia J. Kiers, Curatorial Assistant

April 9, 2020

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