Enter Kunstmuseum, Bern. Ascend ancient spiral staircase. Arrive exhibition entrance. Traverse three doorways. Enter Room 4. Pause. Gasp. Gawk.
The current exhibition on display is “Van Gogh to Cezanne, Bonnard to Matisse: The Hahnloser Collection.” As we wind through the rooms at the beginning of the exhibition, we are greeted by the oeuvres of all these big-name artists.
But nothing compared to the experience of emerging into Room 4. Nothing. I’m not even being dramatic.
Sometimes when I walk into a gallery space, I scan the room first and make a beeline for the piece that compels me most. Why not? There’s no shame in seeing what you damn well please, and isn’t that the whole point? Yet this tactic failed tragically in Room 4.
Every single piece was equally as compelling, and like some form of medieval torture I could feel my conflicted body torn in all directions. Where should I go first?
Shimmering landscapes and radiant portraits galore. All by Franco-Swiss artist Felix Vallotton. Although all are dazzling, I will contain my discussion to my favorite piece which I chose according to purely personal preference.
The star of the show, the cover of the exhibition catalogue. The 1913 painting La Blanche et la Noire is as beautiful as it is mysterious. A harmonious symphony of color graces the canvas and instilled in me a sense of awe. The space is divided horizontally into two color blocks: a bright teal blue and a stark white. The brilliant hues complement the women’s yellowish-peach and walnut brown skin tones. The black woman’s fire orange head wrap against the teal background enhance their vibrancies, while the white woman’s flushed red cheeks and auburn hair mimic the black woman’s beaded jewelry.
Even on a purely visual basis, the painting pulsates with an almost inexplicable radiance.
Now, it may seem odd to call such a well-lit, realistically rendered piece mysterious, but I mean this in the sense of the content. What in the heck is going on in this image exactly? The black woman sits casually with her arms folded over her knees, torso leaning forward, head turned and shown in profile to look in the white woman’s direction. The burnt end of the cigarette that is nestled between her lips suggests she has been sitting and smoking for a few minutes. Is she going to ash that soon? What’s the next move?
The white woman casually reclines, head propped on a pillow. Her torso is a creamy yellow while her extremities flush pink. But it’s her intense sanguine facial complexion that made me question: is this a healthy glow or is she actually sick? Her stance can now be read as casual rest or exhaustion. She gazes out in the direction of the black woman from underneath her droopy eyelids. Her face, like the black woman’s, appears pensive or altogether void of any expression.
Notice that for both women, I do not claim that they are looking directly into each other’s eyes or faces. I feel that it is too ambiguous to decidedly tell, since Vallotton does not provide a fully frontal view of either woman. The white woman’s eyes even appear totally closed at first, and only upon further inspection does one realize a small sliver of eyeball. I think that Vallotton instilled this ambiguity on purpose.
Despite this obscurity, we can still identify that this painting is all about contradiction, oppositions. How very modernist.
One woman is white, the other is black. One woman reclines, the other is seated upright. One woman is clothed, the other is nude. One woman exudes strength and vitality, the other is languid, suggesting possible illness. The only point of intersection between the two occurs at 1) (possible) exchange of gazes and 2) physical overlap of the white woman’s feet with the black woman’s backside.
Yet despite the clashing of the content, this painting is still harmonious. Perhaps there is a certain balance in chaos, no?
Bear with me for the final thought on this piece. According to my interpretation, I can identify some form of racial power play in this painting.
After I was done oogling over the pretty colors, I found that I was somewhat surprised at the set-up of the figures. The black woman, physically elevated and gazing downwards at the white woman. The black woman’s skin pulsing with vitality while the sickly white woman meekly returns her gaze. This strikes odd for an early 20th century painting.
Let’s get situated here: It’s 1913 in France. France still has control of a majority of its African colonies. North, West, Equatorial, East African regions- you name it! To depict a woman of African descent not just equal but suggest a superior stance and aura to a white woman was out of the ordinary for a 48-year-old European white male, to say the least.
Let’s also keep in mind that only 50 years prior to this, Manet painted Olympia. Here, the power play is far more reflective of what the actual racial relationships between white and black women resembled at the time. Like in Vallotton’s work, the white woman is nude while the black woman is fully clothed. The black woman also stands up and is ultimately taller than the reclining white woman on the canvas.
It’s the same, but drastically different.
Here, the black woman is in a subservient position; she is the white woman’s maid or personal servant. Although fully dressed, the black woman’s body is obscured by frothy cloth and a sprawling floral bouquet. Her body is shrouded and does not attract admiration for its beauty or strength like Vallotton’s. She is merely a background actor, existing only to fulfill the white woman’s desires. Furthermore, the directions of gazes are telling of the relationship between the women. Olympia stares directly out of the canvas to engage with the viewer, while the black woman looks attentively at Olympia, perhaps offering the bouquet or waiting on further orders.
I much prefer Vallotton’s depiction of racial relations to Manet’s, but what bothers me is not knowing why. Why would Vallotton depict a relationship which, historically and sociologically speaking, was extremely uncommon to experience in the early 20th century? What is he trying to say?
Some claim that he was depicting a lesbian relation between the two. Although this may be true, it did not strike me as such when I looked it over. In any case, I would like to believe that the message goes deeper than the lesbian affair, and does indeed aim to comment on racial relations.
What do you think?
De toute manière, Vallotton vaut le coup.
Header Image: Félix Vallotton, La Blanche et la Noire, 1913