What lies smouldering beneath the cool detachment in the paintings and prints of Franco-Swiss painter Félix Vallotton (1865-1925)? This is what visitors could come and see in the Félix Vallotton exhibition from 14 February to 1 June: The Fire Beneath the Ice at the Van Gogh Museum Some 60 paintings on loan by international museums and private collectors, together with 40 prints from the collection of the Van Gogh Museum, show the tension and emotions in Vallotton’s intriguing oeuvre, where nothing is what it seems. The museum received more than 500,000 visitors in this period.
The Van Gogh Museum has a large collection of works on paper by the ‘Nabis’ (Hebrew for ‘prophets’), the influential French group of artists who set a new course at the end of the 19th century towards a highly decorative form of art. The museum owns remarkable woodcuts by Félix Vallotton, an important Nabis member and a contemporary of Vincent van Gogh. These were now presented together with Vallotton’s paintings. Vallotton, who began as a portrait painter, won international renown through his powerful black and white woodcuts. It is pioneering work with an unparalleled style and image: an underlying or erotic tension or threat is always present in these prints, and the humorous elements often harbour social criticism.
Félix Vallotton was a master in observation. He was a somewhat gloomy, bitter man who deliberately detached himself from the world, which he observed sharply in all its cruelty and absurdity. His paintings present day-to-day reality in a disturbing atmosphere. The detachment with which he presented his subjects contrasts with the underlying emotions. What transpires between the figures, what turmoil do his smooth surfaces conceal, what emotions slumber beneath that cool detachment? In short, what is ‘the fire beneath the ice’?
The Art of Making Art Exhibitions course is intended for students from the creative and museum sectors with the ambition to create art exhibitions. The joint organisation of a closing exhibition constituted the final test of the learning process.
The exhibition presented a rich overview of Vallotton’s oeuvre. His aesthetic and social motivations and his complex personality are presented in seven themes. Under the heading Opulent Substance, Vallotton’s still-lifes and nudes were highlighted. They show his mastery in painting substance, whether that is skin, flesh, a flower or a fruit. The theme The Tragic Violence of a Black Spot focused on Vallotton’s woodcuts, which are designed with black surfaces and economical white lines. Flattened Perspectives presented Vallotton’s dream landscapes. Mythologies and War showed how the artist commented on his own time through his paintings using mythological scenes: from the role of women to the violence of the First World War. Restriction and Lies presented Vallotton’s scenes of a parochial, domestic environment where temptation or deception is taking place. In Idealism and Purity of Line, the emphasis lay on Vallotton’s style and Icy Eroticism covered his inimitable nudes.
Visitors could attend Sunday Lectures and Friday Nights on the theme of Vallotton. The Felix Vallotton catalogue was published to accompany the exhibition. The Fire Beneath the Ice, (realised in collaboration with the Musée d’Orsay in Paris), a useful book in Dutch and English versions, introducing the public to the little-known and impressive oeuvre of this remarkable French artist.
The exhibition was organised by the Musée d’Orsay and the Réunion des musées nationaux - Grand Palais in Paris, in collaboration with the Van Gogh Museum, the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum in Tokyo and Nikkei Inc, with the special support of the Musées d’Art et d’Histoire in Geneva and the Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts in Lausanne. The exhibition was made possible with the support of the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia.