13 Apr 2020
The guided tour series "Inspired by her" on female positions at the Kunstmuseum Basel enjoys great popularity. Iris Kretzschmar now presents the themes here as text instead of on site at the museum. This story is dedicated to Suzanne Valadon.
Art history is rich in bathing scenes that allude to the pleasure of the secret gaze. These two depictions in the exhibition Picasso, Chagall, Jawlensky are quite different, not held as erotic lures: La Grenouille (1910) by Suzanne Valadon and the somewhat earlier pastel drawing by Edgar Degas La tasse de chocolat (around 1900/1905). The old master was not only mentor to the younger one, he also recognized her talent and bought her first works.
As a woman, Valadon was denied an artistic education at the academy. All the more impressive is her path as a talented autodidact to become a recognized artist. Born as the illegitimate daughter of a washerwoman, she was already a model for Puvis de Chavannes at the age of 15. Her unconventional personality and her beauty with long dark hair also fascinated Auguste Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec. However, she was not only a much sought-after model on Montmartre, she was also an exceptional woman and artist and defied many social conventions. Hardly 18 she gave birth to her son Maurice who later celebrated successes as a painter by the name of Utrillo and introduced her to the 20 years younger painter André Utter. For many years, he was her lover and also, in contrast to the traditional gender hierarchy, her nude model for numerous pictures.
Between 1908 and 1910 Valadon captured a whole series of bathing scenes in charcoal, pastel, etching or oil. They mostly show a servant with an apron and a younger naked woman in different poses. The simple interior decoration includes a washbowl or bathtub, towel, chest of drawers, and occasionally a child or a small dog.
The similarity of the motifs in Degas' and Valadon's paintings is striking, but the expression and colourfulness are quite different. While Degas discreetly wraps his nudes in a warm-toned backlight situation, they appear in cool shades and frontality in Valadon's works. Almost like a dancer, with her leg bent, her arms resting on the edge of the tub, the young woman climbs into the tub while the blue-robed servant leans over the edge of the tub. Surrounded by dark contour lines, the pale body stands out against the greenish background and confronts us directly with its nakedness. In the 1909 nude Adam and Eve the painter still had to conceal the male sex – the female was allowed to appear unveiled, as here too.
The figures of Valadon seem neither embellished nor sexualised. Rather, our eye is captured by the unbiased and uninhibited nature of the expression – without evoking the impression of voyeurism.
Written by: Iris Kretzschmar, art historian, art mediator and freelance author