Active among the late nineteenth-century French Intimists, Swiss-born Félix Vallotton worked as an illustrator for Parisian journals such as the anarchist Les Temps Nouveaux. His art adds some startling intrigue to “Private Lives: Home and Family in the Art of the Nabis” at the Portland Art Museum in Oregon; as his fellow painter-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 for studies of modern life, Vallotton chose the woodcut, a technically demanding medium he mastered like no other of his generation.
His brilliant graphic sense produced Intimacies, a suite of ten prints depicting couples in domestic or hotel interiors, published in 1898. Vallotton relied on the most reductive formal means—the simple contrast of black on white—to establish richly ambiguous scenarios, hardly clarified by suggestive titles inscribed at the bottom of each block: The Lie, The Irreparable, or Five O’Clock (that hour when French men typically met their mistresses). Betrayal and blame are broadly assigned: in the Munch-like scene of The Triumph, a pitiless woman disdains her distraught husband; in Extreme Measure, it’s the sobbing wife who’s devastated. The lady in evening dress in Money seems unmoved by the disputation of her male companion, his intentions abstruse. Vallotton places him literally on the dark side, merging his figure with the shadows. Ironically, a year after he created this image, the artist left his own longtime mistress to marry a wealthy widow—for money. He was unhappy ever after.
Money’s composition is remarkable, fully two-thirds of it given over to solid black. In a similarly bold move, to cancel the edition, Vallotton cut up his woodblocks and compiled a single-sheet graphic novel, sans text, featuring an evocative detail from each print in Intimacies. One thinks of Zola—but also of Chris Ware—as these mute vignettes of passion and alienation form a disjunctive narrative of intimate sexual relations in Vallotton’s modern world.