“Everything thunders and smells of battle,” declared Félix Vallotton in July, 1914. War was engulfing Europe and even artists, so often pictured as absent-minded beings, isolated in their studios, were inevitably embroiled along with the rest of society. Vallotton felt compelled to contribute to the war effort but, at nearly 50 years of age, was dismissed as too old for army enrolment. So instead he turned to reflecting the war through his art. Or at least, he attempted to.
Growing up in the Jura region of Switzerland and then moving to late-19th century Paris, Vallotton had experienced his share of radical political environments. He captured this in some of his impressive woodcuts. The Anarchist (1892) shows the rough arrest of an anarchist by French police; two years later, he followed it up with The Execution. But it seems that the punishment of individual radicals was a far easier subject than the horrors of total war. Vallotton planned a series of wood engravings entitled, This is War!, but they never materialised. His response to a visit to the front in Champagne, in 1917, was the painting Verdun.
The semi-abstract style, so unlike his other paintings of the time, shows his struggle to find a suitable way of expressing what he saw. Not only are the detailed facial expressions in The Anarchist gone, but there are no people at all. Perhaps so overwhelmed at the scale of human suffering, Vallotton chose instead to show the ravaged, violent landscape overtaken by machines.
He concluded that images of the individual horrors of war were an inadequate response and decided he needed time to process what he had witnessed. This is not unsurprising. Unlike Goya, whose Disasters of War were the fruit of many years in a war-torn country, Vallotton’s daily life was spent in the cafes and studios of Paris, or observing tranquil French and Swiss landscapes. And so he returned to what he knew best, to these quieter scenes, to his still lifes of fruit and his images of women lounging with their cats.