The tension in the style is gripping, being somewhere between Romanticism and something more boldly graphic, which, after some digging, I found to be the influence of his time making woodcuts. There are many small elements in this image that I find gripping: the shadow at the man’s knee, which looks ominously monstrous (what is making that shadow? The fold in the dress? His knee? Something else?). The way the man is obscuring her with his body and the way the shadow from both the figures seems to almost be a third person, it’s arm hooking under her arm which is being clutched by the man. And despite the suggested scene of a couple having an intimate moment, the coolness of the palette forces the whole scene to border on uncomfortable. Also the harsh shadow feels like it was almost made from a camera flash which offers another layer of slightly frightening parameters.
Now this image, especially coupled with the previous, offers something that gives a sense of consent, of comfort and not just a half-sinister flirtation. The room is warm and the hues of the couple seem to be liquefying into the rest of the room straight into its shadows, melting into each other blissfully.
I’m really into his bold use of shadows, just bathing is subjects in deep vivacious shadows. The way he composes the scene and the poses he chooses always seem immensely intimate but never veer into the overly romantic or melodramatic. They are small secrets, fragments of some kind of intimacy, wanted or unwanted, that one might look away from if seen at a party. This is not our moment. But Vallotton is the casual onlooker who stays with the couples and collects the tenderest moments for us to experience.
I love this image because it feels like we’re clearly interrupting. We’ve been caught and she is cooly irritated at our presence. The yellow balcony wall is alarming but the dark mahogany shadows that the two figures are immersed in sober the image immensely and instead telegraph the mood sharply and clearly.
Vallotton’s woodcuts feel extremely modern and remind me a lot of some of my favorite cartoonists, specifically the way he stages scenes to make them unsettling in a very particular way.
In the Assassination above, I find the dispassionate framing of the murder strangely charming. The layout of the room and framing is very simple, traditional, something you might see drawn in any number of storybooks, and in comes this killer, a heavy black shape pulling everything to the center, whose obscured head face and almost completely obscured victim allow us to fill in the experience of the struggle on the bed. It seems silent and quick. The victim probably hadn’t even lifted their head from the pillow.
His use of patterns and textures to break up space I find especially effective as well as the way he handles black and lets it bleed across space, over objects and figures. I feel there is a wholeness to his images, a coherence, that comes from the way he obscures or simplifies faces. Somehow the lack of focus on the figures pulls everything together so that you might look to the surrounding environment, the way its arranged, the color it is, more quickly and thoroughly than if you had a perfectly rendered face to study and endlessly discern it’s emotion. There is something keenly observant yet aloof in the way he portrays his subjects that contributes to that harmony as well.