But I’m drawn deeply into these paintings, their painful unfinished stories, particularly The Red Room (1898), which is less stylised than others in the series. It’s worked in careful detail and the perspective is steady, although nothing is quite as naturalistic as in the interiors with Gabrielle – the couple’s faces and posture are conveyed in a few suggestive woodcut-like lines. The room isn’t at all like the patterned, papered, draped interiors Vallotton will paint when he’s married; this furniture is blocky, modern, low-slung, upholstered in plain brick-reds and hot oranges. Everything that feels feminine in the spaces Gabrielle commands is masculine here: most of the fussy bits and pieces belong to the woman who’s visiting – her gloves and a parasol and handkerchief left on the table-top. Even the man’s books are shut away in a glass-fronted bookcase: he isn’t thinking about reading now. There’s daylight: no doubt it’s the five o’clock that seems to have been the joke-hour for adulteries (it’s the title of one of the woodcuts).
Two concentrated passages of painting, in the middle and on the left, exact our attention – balancing them on the right is a suggestive tall oil lamp with a shade like frothy underwear. At the centre, above a closed hearth, there’s an oddly busy mantelpiece, ornamented with candles, flowers, and a mirror whose screening curtains – to screen off what, when, for whom? – are drawn back. A male bust, made in some black material, is broodingly intellectual yet somehow null, with its shiny high forehead – it’s based, apparently, on an actual portrait bust of Vallotton, as if he mocks his own artist’s detachment from the scene, voyeur looking the wrong way. The mirror, meanwhile, reflects a painting on the opposite wall, a tense family grouping by Vuillard, who had given the painting to Vallotton. It isn’t quite clear that it’s a painting; anyone not in the know might puzzle over these figures apparently reflected in a room where something so private is unfolding. The messy complexity of the mantelpiece, art muddled with life, seems to denote everything in the world that’s opaque, intricate, distracting.
What happens in the darkened doorway beside the mirror is so much simpler than all this, eloquent in fact in its simplicity, drawn in a few clean lines. A man and a woman hesitate in a doorway, which leads presumably through into the bedroom, although we can’t see anything beyond them but darkness (the curtains in there must be pulled across). They’re touching but not embracing, inclining together yet holding themselves back. He seems to coax her, and perhaps his leg thrust forward cuts her off from returning into the daylit room. She seems to balk at going on into the darkness, she’s sunk into herself, looking down, away from his importuning; yet even as she holds him off she also invites him, through her touch and the slope of her body towards him. We see his perplexity, a line in his forehead. Nobody’s violent, yet they’re troubled. In this moment of stasis they’re poised on the threshold between the two rooms, two states of being (politely apart, or nakedly together). As they stand hesitating, they’re intensely two separate selves; but they’re also lustful. The slants of their bodies rhyme together, we feel the potent connective tissue of their touches and glances. What’s happening is cheap and ordinary and eternal, it isn’t romantic: Vallotton paints it with a kind of fatalism. It’s simple: but it isn’t interpretable, not in any moralising schema. It is what it is. A man and a woman, bereft of their usual performances as their ordinary selves – guarded behind books and parasol – take a great risk, and Vallotton catches them in their act, so vividly intent, so animal and alive.
Tessa Hadley is a novelist and short story writer. Her most recent book is the novel Late in the Day (Jonathan Cape).
Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet is at the Royal Academy of Arts from 30 June — 29 September 2019. Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in collaboration with Fondation Félix Vallotton, Lausanne.