Before focusing on some of Vallotton’s work, I think it is necessary to give the full context or at least, the fullest historical context possible. This is essential when analysing any work of art but as Vallotton was an illustrator and had worked doing press drawings, the importance of historical facts and events is in my opinion even greater.
At that time, France was still recovering from its defeat against Prussia and its Germanic allies in the 1870 to 1871 war opposing them. The French troops, outnumbered and with poor material, suffered a great discomfiture the consequences being the fall of the French Empire and the loss of Alsace-Lorraine. Social tensions were strong and it was around this period of time that the first demonstrations took place. Indeed the gap between social classes was still very present in this society where the separation between the State and the Church had not yet been pronounced (State and Church effectively splitting in 1905). This tension along with demonstrations of ambient anti-Semitism reached a peak with the Dreyfus affair, which was brought to the public in 1898 with the famous article “J’accuse!” by Emile Zola.
This affair began in 1894 with an accusation made against Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish captain of the French army who was originally from Alsace. He was accused of treason for having supposedly given secret documents to the Germans. Dreyfus was condemned to life in a penal colony although no proof could ever be found against him. Indeed, the evidence actually pointed to another person. France was split in two during this long affair (Dreyfus would only be cleared and rehabilitated in 1906) his supporters on one side and detractors, mostly from the upper class, on the other. It was in this socially and politically unstable climate that Vallotton would evolve and find inspiration.
“Voilà donc pourquoi elle ne sortait pas!”, Le Cri de Paris, 1899
“Voilà donc pourquoi elle ne sortait pas!” (“So that’s why she was not coming out!”), above, is an example of a press drawing made by Vallotton. Published in 1899 in “Le Cri de Paris”, it is one of a long series concerning the Dreyfus affair. This illustration is actually a pastiche of the 1898 painting by Edouard Debat-Ponsan “La vérité sortant du puits”. The latter is an allegory where a young woman, Truth, is stepping out of a well her tunic tearing apart under the pull of two men, – one armed, the other visibly a cleric- trying to hold her back. This painting is clearly in favour of Dreyfus’s cause and accuses the army and the religious authorities of trying to hide the truth.
Edouard Debat-Ponsan, La Vérité sortant du puits, 1898
Vallotton also supports Dreyfus but while Debat-Ponsan paints a very serious and dramatic oil, Vallotton does so in perhaps a darker but cynical way. In his version, Truth is naked, left hanging from the rope of the well, a sword stabbed through her chest. The image is blunt but quite effective. The army, – represented here by a sword that is very similar to the one used by French officers – tried to make the truth disappear forever. Some might consider this version more pessimistic, arguing that “truth” is dead. Personally, I disagree. The woman has indeed been assassinated but in my opinion, this just emphasises how the attempt to dissimulate her (the truth) very nearly worked. Furthermore, one could then imagine mere fragments of the truth being left. However, it/she is there, naked, entirely exposed for everyone to see.
Before being totally cleared in 1906, Dreyfus was pardoned by the president in 1899. This meant that he was free but still considered guilty in the eyes of justice. By doing so, the authorities hoped to calm the people down and put an end to all the tension. Vallotton ridicules the bourgeoisie’s naivety in thinking people will calm down. In 1900, he published a drawing as a cover for “Le Cris de Paris”. It was accompanied by the caption: “Après tant de haines, un peu d’amour reposera!”- “After so much hate, a little love goes a long way!”.
“Après tant de haines, un peu d’amour reposera!”, Le Cri de Paris, 1900
Entirely out of context, one can only approve of such words. Considering the recent events however, they show the eagerness and haste with which the authorities want to move on and associated with the image, approval is definitely gone. The sentence loses everything noble and right as the image depicts the speaker, a fat bourgeois sitting on a sofa with an unhealthy look of satisfaction on his face. Sitting on his lap are two women who, judging by their clothes and pose (one woman’s strap is even off her shoulder), are two prostitutes. Such an image has two effects. The first obvious goal is to show the bourgeoisie, the “elite”, in a degrading and shameful situation. The second is to illustrate its hypocrisy. The bourgeoisie could not care less for the code of conduct and virtue it imposes. Its “love” is a love of lust.
Most of Vallotton’s work ,though it is not really shown in my little selection, depicts scenes of everyday life and for many a touch of humour is used. However, as you have seen, there are some exceptions. “L’Execution” (1894) is one which illustrates a far graver matter. In the foreground in the left corner of the picture is a man dressed in a suit and top hat. He is facing away from us, his arm stretched out toward a group of people in the middle ground. He is waiting for them. This group, slightly to the right of the image, is made up of three individuals. Two men, also dressed in a suit and top hat, are holding tightly on to the third man, pushing him forward. Behind them on the right, three more representatives of the authorities are watching from a distance.
The background is composed of a line of mounted guards, barely outlined. They are a menacing presence, a veritable barrier shattering any hope of escape. This impression of a barrier, almost like the bars of a prison is made even stronger as the horses are suggested merely by vertical lines and as virtually the only thing we see of the guards are their swords all raised toward the sky. However, this is not what immediately jumps to the eye of the observer. The first thing that one sees is the condemned man, particularly his face. Indeed, he is the only person in white and as such, he stands out.
We can feel his reluctance and his despair. Every line of his body is fleeing the open arms of the executioner. His face is of fear and anguish. Intriguing detail, he is devoid of a mouth, as if to symbolise his powerlessness. He cannot save himself and is condemned to accept his fate in silence. Had he been capable of speech, his executioners -justice- would not have been to be able to hear his cries. Unlike him, they seem bare of any emotion- their faces are masks of indifference. They go about their task, machine-like, without a hint of compassion. The condemned man is alone, isolated, the only true human being in the crowd.
The criminal becomes the victim. This is exactly what comes through from this piece.
This selection is perhaps not representative of Valotton’s usual work, but I thought it was interesting nevertheless and hope you will agree.