In 1909, Suzanne Valadon painted a large painting entitled Adam and Eve. If the theme is classic, its version does not lack audacity. Ignoring her marriage, the artist depicts herself radiant, picking the apple alongside her new lover André Utter, a friend of her son Maurice Utrillo and twenty-one years her junior. Seen from the front, in the simplest form, this Adam is one of the very first male nudes thus captured by a woman. To exhibit it at the Salon d’Automne in 1920, the painter had to dress it up with a vine branch, no doubt at the request of the organizers, who were not at all offended, however, by her own nudity!
This canvas of great freedom, which will be followed by other monumental nudes of her lover, introduces the exhibition that the Center Pompidou-Metz is devoting to Suzanne Valadon (1865-1938). More than half a century after the last retrospective dedicated to her in France by the National Museum of Modern Art, this tribute was eagerly awaited, as a crucial milestone in the vast movement for the rehabilitation of female artists.
She is self-taught
Why then did you hang on to Metz, from the introduction, La Danse à la ville by Renoir, where we find our cheeky girl, this time from behind, in an immaculate satin dress, locked in the arms of a man in tails? ? Should she thus be sent back from the start to her past as a model, to the misery of her young years, where to survive with her mother on the Montmartre hill she posed as a teenager for Puvis de Chavannes, Renoir, Steinlen or Lautrec, with whom she has an affair?
Admittedly, it was partly through their contact that Suzanne Valadon trained as an autodidact, signed a self-portrait in pastel at the age of 18, took up the brushes ten years later and dared to exhibit her drawings at the Société Nationale des Beaux -arts. This emancipation accomplished, however, she ceases all modeling activity. So much so that it would have seemed fairer to circumscribe this first period of his life in a separate room to fully deploy his own works.
Instead, a new awkwardness, the hanging gives a whole picture rail to a large slice of bread by Gustav Wertheimer which depicts the young woman as a fatal Mermaid, while just next door some twenty portraits painted by her are juxtaposed side by side, in a corner without retreat. Some of these works, however, fascinate with their unvarnished crudeness, such as this woman mending a sock, concentrating on her modest work but irradiated with tawny colors!
Inspired by Gauguin, Valadon outlines her figures in black and plays with the shimmering fabrics of her first husband, a cloth merchant. See this Portrait of Mauricia Coquiot, captured from a low angle like a powerful woman, her hand clasping her trendy dress, in a grip that seems to betray her appetite as a collector! “Never bring me a woman who is looking for the friendly or the pretty, I will disappoint her right away,” warned the painter.
Degas introduced him to engraving
In her self-portraits, she spares no more. “You have to be hard on yourself,” writes the one who, with her blue eyes, observes her beauty fade over the years and depicts herself, bravado, after the sixties, bare breasts and short hair. When she was younger, she had represented herself in the midst of her family – her elderly mother, her painter son and her lover Utter – as the true head of the family, her hand on her heart, like Dürer before her. That is to say his ambition as a painter!
An artist who encouraged her in this direction, very difficult at the time for a woman, moreover of very modest origin, it is Degas. On Lautrec’s advice, she brings him her drawings. Fascinated by his “supple and hard” line, he exclaims: “You are one of us! And buys one of his works, then around thirty others. On his own press, he introduced him to intaglio engraving. These two are made for each other, as revealed by a formidable collection of drawings in which the youngest sketches women and children in their toilets, without affectation or false modesty, fascinated by the elasticity of youthful bodies. But there again, why add a little perverse paintings of teenagers by Balthus? If there is a legacy of Valadon in his uninhibited relationship to the body, to the truth of the postures, we would rather have seen it on the side of the American portrait painter Alice Neel…
A queen in pajamas
In the last section dedicated to canvases of female nudes, some, firmly planted, look towards the Dryads of the young Picasso, others towards the colorful Odalisques of Matisse, but without ever tipping over into the avant-garde. We feel Valadon hesitating between slightly rogue works, with stockings and boots, likely to seduce his male collectors, and others where his models make fun of male desire. Some cross their legs or arms on their chest, curl up in a folded position or, like the black Venus, stare at us with a sly look and hide their pubis.
Enthroned as queen at the end of the journey, La Chambre bleue (1923), which shows a buxom woman, posing in striped pajamas, cigarette in her mouth and books at her feet, will become over time an icon of feminist art. . How far away she seems then, the young girl whom Renoir twirled at will!
An exhibition in three stages
At the Center Pompidou-Metzthe exhibition “Suzanne Valadon, a world of one’s own” brings together 131 of her works, confronted with around fifty of her contemporaries, until September 11th.
Nantes Museum of Arts will then host this retrospective, from October 27, 2023 to February 11, 2024, by shedding more light on the historical context, in particular the lives of the models and the evolution of the status of women artists at the beginning of the 20th century.
The National Art Museum of Catalonia in Barcelona will finally resume the exhibition from April 18 to September 1, 2024.