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Kunsthaus reveals artist's scandalous side

Vallotton's take on the Perseus legend "Persée tuant le dragon", 1910

Swiss artist Félix Vallotton's work was first shown in Zurich in 1909, young ladies were banned from the show, as his nude paintings were deemed too shocking.

People were irritated by the realism of his paintings. But, as a new exhibition in Zurich shows, it is precisely this ability to irk and criticise – particularly in relation to 19th century bourgeois society - that makes the artist so fascinating.

Vallotton (1865-1925) was born in Lausanne, but moved to Paris in 1882, where he became associated with the influential Nabis circle of artists.

There Vallotton distinguished himself from his contemporaries through his ironic portrayals of society.

Although Vallotton is well known for his wood cuts, Zurich's Kunsthaus Fine Arts Museum has decided to concentrate on his paintings for its "Félix Vallotton – Idyll on the Edge" exhibition which opened on Friday.

The Kunsthaus was where the Lausanne-born artist's first solo exhibition, which included the unflattering women nudes, was held almost 100 years ago. It caused a scandal.

"People were shocked and also the exhibition officials were shocked and they asked Vallotton not to show all of his nudes because they thought it might be too much for the public," co-curator Linda Schädler told swissinfo.

"And the exhibition was indeed forbidden for young ladies, so as not to spoil their imagination!"

Warts and all

Vallotton painted women realistically and sometimes even emphasised their imperfections, which was at the time very unusual for art. Thus women are shown as nature made them, with a mild squint, or asymmetrical breasts.

Schädler says it was Vallotton's way of showing women as individuals. "Some women at the time thought he was the first artist who really understood them because he was not idealising them any more," she said.

Indeed, women often come across strongly in his pictures, often as victors in the battle of the sexes.

In "Persée tuant le dragon" from 1910, a reinterpretation of the Perseus story, instead of a beautiful damsel chained to a rock there is an emancipated 20th century woman viewing the struggle between man and monster with disdainful disinterest. The dragon has been downgraded to a crocodile.

Women are also seen in a series of paintings of interior settings. In paintings such as "La Visite" the artist picks away at the veneer of bourgeois life, showing scenes normally played out behind closed doors – in this case, a secret tryst.

He uses simple details and bold colour, particularly red, to devastating effect. This helps to give the paintings an almost photographic quality.

"No one was in a hurry to be dissected by that cruel eye, so careful not to leave any physical or moral blemish unseen," commented Vallotton's Swiss patron Hedy Hahnloser-Bühler in 1936.

Ironic twist

Vallotton's critique was all the more surprising because he actually became a member of the bourgeoisie through marriage.

In 1899, he left his factory worker girlfriend and muse Hélène Chatenay and married Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques, a rich widow with three children. Her brothers ran the noted Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris, and Vallotton was soon exhibiting there.

It is not clear whether he married for love or money, but it is known that Vallotton, a loner, was not always happy in his marriage. However, his painting career did receive a boost.

Schädler is hoping that the 80 works in the exhibition – some of which are rarities - will be a "revelation" to the public – some of whom may not know much about the artist or his paintings.

The art historian says Vallotton's importance lies in the fact he went his own way and refused to be influenced by other contemporary artists, such as the Impressionists.

"He was looking back to classicism, but he combined this technique with very modern motives and this is an irritation in itself," Schädler told swissinfo.

"This irritation is the most important thing about Vallotton and this makes him really modern, even today."

swissinfo, Isobel Leybold-Johnson in Zurich

Key facts

"Felix Vallotton. Idyll on the Edge" runs until January 13, 2008.
Opening times: Tuesday-Thursday 10am-9pm. Friday-Sunday 10am-5pm.
From 2008: Tues/Sat/Sun 10am-6pm. Wed-Fri 10am-8pm.
Closed Mondays.

A series of lectures to accompany the exhibition will take place from October 24-November 21.
The Villa Flora in Winterthur will be featuring a "Felix Vallotton in the Villa Flora" exhibition about his patrons until September 28, 2008.

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Félix Vallotton

Félix Vallotton was born in Lausanne in 1865. He moved to Paris in 1882 where he studied art.

He was associated with the Nabis group of artists and also worked as an illustrator for avant-garde journals and wrote stage plays. Vallotton is also regarded as an important figure in the development of the modern woodcut.

After his marriage in 1899 he concentrated more on painting.

In 1907 he completed his best-known novel "La vie meurtrière", a story with autobiographical touches. It was this year that he met his Swiss patrons, the Hanloser-Bühlers, who promoted his art in Switzerland.

He died of cancer in 1925 in a Paris clinic. The first memorial shows for the avant-garde artist were organised in Switzerland in the following year.

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