Head down to Piccadilly tube station and then once again walk along to the Royal Academy. But this time, instead of crossing the concourse, rotating through the revolving doorway and following the rest of the whirling crowds into the great carousel jamboree of the annual Summer Show exhibition extravaganza, I dodge past them all, turn left at the top of the grand staircase and slip out through the unmarked back door that leads onto another separate supplementary set of stairs. It may sound like a slightly convoluted manoeuvre but it really is the official recommended route to get to the Sackler Wing, the modern annex that was so cleverly attached to the main Academy buildings by Norman Foster nearly thirty years ago. And the reason that there’s no more obvious grand entablatured ingress or other flashy architectonic announcement leading into this extra additional add-on exhibition space, has nothing to do with the modish Postmodern architectural practices of the time of its construction, still less any unduly modest desire for anonymised discretion on behalf of its benefactual sponsors. No, it’s more to do with the simple matter of the complicated logistics that arise when trying to jam a modern cubistic gallery space onto the top of, and squeeze it in between the interstices of, the original old buildings of Burlington House. In retrospect, it was a feat very cleverly managed and one that still impresses me every time I walk up the enclosed glass stairwell that leads to its corridor of an entrance and seems to place any visitors both inside and outside the buildings at the very same time – ascending the steps that are interior while brushing against the brickwork that’s exterior and simultaneously peering in through the windows to gawp at the offices of the administrative staff, not that there ever seems to be anyone ever actually sitting behind a desk actively administrating.
Nevertheless, while these Escher-like edifices may provide a brilliantly sophisticated solution to a devilishly difficult design problem, the end result is the awkward approach route described above as well as the unsatisfactory absence of a suitably appropriate introductory entrance. Then again, perhaps architecture is inevitably the art of the unideal, a continual compromise that pits planning dreams against practical realities although, in this particular case, it would be hard to argue that the end result didn’t justify the meandering of the means.
Of course, more recently, other reasons have come into play as to why some visitors might feel slightly circumspect about stepping over the threshold into this particular display space, and that’s due to the surname of the eponymous financial backers who funded its creation: Jillian and Arthur M Sackler. It’s a tag that has, unfortunately, become horribly associated with the curse of opioid addiction currently having such devastating effect in the US although, as far as my very cursory google researches suggest, the branch of the family that funded the Royal Academy building were otherwise unconnected with the near relatives who did indeed benefit from what seems to be the most appalling example of quasi-formalised drug pushery.
Anyway, I definitely hope so although, even were that not to be the case, when it comes to matters of boycotting exhibitions supported by dodgy donors, I confess that I’m by no means as certain as to the correct moral decision-making process as some others seem to be. When I was a smoker I certainly didn’t see any problem with the National Portrait Gallery gaining sponsorship from my personally preferred brand of Players cigarettes and now that they’ve switched over to sucking on the oily BP teat, I feel somewhat compromised when considering condemning their anti-environmentalist standpoint since I’m only too happy to accept lifts in cars that run on the petrol from their pumps, or those of their competitor’s.
Oh well, enough of the political digression and back into the galleries of the, whisper it softly, S*****r Wing where there is a very attractive, interesting and entertaining retrospective exhibition of prints and paintings by Felix Vallotton. And, yet again, I have to admit that here is an artist about whom I was previously unaware, so thanks to the RA curatorial staff for drawing attention to him and then providing such a sensible and well-laid out chronological introductory documentation of his biography and career. And what this display immediately reveals is an early prodigious talent, confirmed by a small but extremely well produced still life of a metal coffee caddy and a small porcelain cup that – at least to my amateur eye – could almost rival one by Chardin, the great master who perfected this kind of format back in the 18th century. Vallotton’s version was painted when he was only 22 which is really very impressive, as is the self-portrait knocked out a couple of years earlier that seems to show a rather diffident, nervous young man – a psychological projection completely contradicted by the confidence of the brushwork displayed by the artist who produced the work.
Unfortunately, in many ways, these two paintings are the highlights of the show and everything else is all more or less downhill from here on in. It’s a sort of slow steady decline of an early unfulfilled promise that tapers off with a couple of really disappointingly wooden still lifes of apples and peppers. But that’s not to say that there still aren’t quite a number of sufficiently worthwhile items to look at on the way down. It’s just that Vallotton’s true métier was as a printmaker rather than a painter. So that while his paintings frequently look unresolved, too loosely finished or, occasionally, just half-hearted homagistic copies of similar works by friends like Vuillard and Bonnard, his small bold black and white woodcuts are consistently strong and sharp. Just compare the Nude Seated in a Red Armchair (above) with Laziness (below), it’s not just that one sizzles with sexuality and the other barely triggers a ripple, the execution of the flatter graphic is so much more full of depth and colour than its contrastly coloured companion.
The problem for Vallotton, however, goes deeper and I daresay the reason for his relative relegation to footnote status within the great canonistic ledgers of art historical record, is that many, if not most, of these really rather excellent printed works were created for publication in the mass media journals and chronicles of the day. As such, the narrative sentiments tend to get presented with a bit too much emphasis, with Vallotton absolutely unable to resist stressing a comic element if at all possible. So, whether it’s the promenaders and boulevardiers dashing hither and thither to escape a sudden shower, gendarmes beating up protesters and scattering hats in the air, or even bodies tangled in the barbed wire of the First World War trenches, all seem to be treated with the similar sense of bemused ironic absurdism.
As the gallery guide suggests, the best of Vallatton’s print work is the suite of works entitled Intimacies which sticks to reflecting on the serious side of human interactions and treating the experiences with a subtle restraint not seen in some of the other works. The scenes of seduction, exploitation and infidelity among the monied bourgeoisie of Parisian society are all delicately framed and create a very convincing atmosphere of stifled emotions.
And if only the artist had been able to emphasis even more the miserabilistic atmospherics of the Parisian world of the fin de siecle that he was documenting then he might have become as revered as Gustave Dore or Edvard Munch, but trying to put a smile on people’s faces, as I think he probably preferred to do, rather than emphasising the agony and angst of life was always going to be held against him. Not perhaps that he minded that much.
There are a couple of later paintings that are worth looking out for and that suggest that when he could be bothered to put in a bit more effort then those efforts would be rewarded. The portrait of Gertrude Stein is powerful – you certainly wouldn’t want to arm wrestle this grande dame – and The White Woman and the Black Woman – which, according to the gallery notes, is Vallatton’s unsettling commentary on Manet’s Olympia – is again painted with more of a definite spark than usual. But these really are the exceptions and rest of the late nudes, the expressionistic experiments in landscape, and the already mentioned final still lifes are all just a bit weak and unexceptional. Frankly, I’m not sure that any of them would even make it into the Summer Show being held back down those back staircases down below.