There was a painting I saw at the Grand Palais in Paris that was awesomely perplexing. It was a work by Felix Vallotton titled La Blanche et la Noire made in 1913. I want to try and unpack the image, but I have a feeling I will only be able to ask the questions, and provide no answers.
Formally speaking this image has been composed in a distinctly horizontal fashion. Two women are on a bed looking at each other. The black woman is sitting down, and the white woman reclines. The black woman rests her elbows on her knees and leans forward with a cigarette in her mouth. Her pose is masculine in its display of her biceps and casually hanging wrists as if she is leaning in to discuss a business deal. She is dressed in African clothing, a wrapped headdress and a red beaded necklace. Contrarily the white woman is laid out in a typical feminine pose that accentuates her curves and pale, soft skin. Her hair is pulled back and her cheeks are extremely rosy. Her cheeks are so red however that is goes beyond an artistic tool to speak to femininity and suggests that she may have a condition that makes her cheeks so red, or she is overheated, possibly ill. Both women are on a white bed and the room they are in is unidentifiable. It is a sea green color but gives not details to signify if is a bedroom versus a living room. The black woman is intently focused on the white woman. It appears as if the white woman is sleeping but upon closer inspection one can see that her eyes are in fact open, returning the gaze of the black women, however meekly. The dichotomies created are great: black and white, nude and clothed, European and African, feminine and masculine, seated and reclined. But what does it all mean? Are they friends? What country are they in? Is one a captive of the other? What were they doing before they both ended up in this room? Their relationship is so ambiguous.
Should we read this from a gendered perspective? Is the black woman somehow representing the male? Is her position more important in communicating her sex as opposed to her biology? Why is a decidedly female figure doing the things that are associated with men? Does this then lead to a racial complication with the image? Is Vallotton suggesting that her blackness is correlated with masculinity? Thus, whiteness is more feminine? If that is the case, it then follows (as according to Said orientalist thought) that Vallotton has created a huge problem. Said believes that Europeans feminized the Other world in order to dominate it. But in this image, the Other, non-European is black and masculine looking onto the white woman who is exposed and more vulnerable. The tables have turned it seems. But is the gendered, racialized and orientalist lens even appropriate to use here? These figures are devoid of any context or larger meaning outside of their own bodies thus endowing them so immediately with such heavy historicized race relations seems too abrupt. Then are these woman symbols for something else? Something more universal about women? Or, could it be this whole scene is about the trickery that can be narrative figurative painting?
Vallotton has produced a tough painting. Which perspective reveals this paintings meaning? We began with the formal analysis and moved to gender and then race analysis to end with orientalist ideas, but still no answers. Could it be that the meaning of this work is the very tension and instability of direct meaning?
Such an enigmatic painting. Like you I can’t quite figure out the scene but love the contrast between these two figures. Sure it was very impressive in real life at the GP exhibition.