|The Cast-Off Doll, oil on canvas, 1921|
|Nude at the Mirror, oil on canvas, 1909|
|Woman Preparing for a Bath, drypoint, 1895|
|Woman Looking at Herself in the Mirror, Pastel, 1920|
Valadon's adolescent girls are perhaps prototypes for Balthus' later sexualized pre-pubescent girls, but Valadon portrays her girls with sympathy and knowledge of their experience, their sexuality naturally and awkwardly exuded by the girl-models, not pressed on them by spectator or artist.
While they are perhaps confused by the experience, they are not afraid of their oncoming maturity into women, like Edvard Munch's version of puberty.
|Edvard Munch, Puberty, oil on canvas, 1895|
As they mature, Valadon's girls become confident women, exuding power in their strength and the way they comfortably inhabit their bodies and their sexuality, natural, flexible, solid. They show their generous curves to each other, to the artist, to the viewer, even to a solitary nude man, who appears to be more insecure in his body than they are. This is not to say that there is no conflict in Valadon's female subjects. They are reflective and meditative figures as well as earthy ones, and there is often an implicit power play based in body relations and in gender. The implication is that one's role in the world and in the painting as a subject of gazing and judging is based on one's gender, and that women are more quickly associated with their body and with sexuality than men are.
But Valadon's female nudes are different than the vast majority painted by men because hers are sensitive to the actual bodies of women, and to the spirit of the people who inhabit them. While her nudes may on occasion aver their gaze from the viewer, they always seem to be aware of their bodies and how they are arranged. The bodies she portrays have been lived in: they have curves and muscles, blood and bone.
|Femme a la Toilette, oil on canvas, 1913|
|The Two Bathers, oil on canvas, 1923|
|The Blue Room, oil on canvas, 1923|
|Nude Reclining on a Sofa, oil on canvas, 1928|
|Nude Woman with Drapery, oil on canvas, 1919|
|Portrait of a Woman, 1917|
|The Joy of Life (detail), oil on canvas, 1911|
Scanned from Suzanne Valadon by Jeanine Warnod
Which brings us to the theme of mother and child, a subcategory of the family group, which Valadon used extensively in her portraiture and self-portraiture. Valadon's mothers and grandmothers tend to the bodily needs of their daughters, providing training, emulation, physical closeness. Although I think I detect a note of ambivalence in the drawings which portray older women tending to the bodies of younger women, because they suggest that perhaps the reason the adolescent girl is being carefully tended and prepared is to be sexually active, instead of being sheltered or allowed to grow at their own rate. Valadon herself worked from an early age as a circus acrobat and model, and was promiscuous in her relationships from an early age, having affairs with some of the artists who employed her as well as other men in her circle.
|Mother and Daughter After the Bath II, crayon and pastel, 1908|
|Nude Getting into the Bath beside the Seated Grandmother, black crayon, 1908|
I admire Valadon's women and girls because she paints them with knowledge and sympathy, portraying realistic feminine bodies and experiences. Despite the fact that some of these drawings and paintings are almost 100 years old, I am still able to relate to them as a viewer because they portray themes which are still relevant today: adolescence, body-image, sexuality, and the mother-child relationship among others. Her paintings are frank and sharp and honest, and deserve a revival just as much as her successor Alice Neel, who is currenlty enjoying well-deserved admiration for her painterly reputation. They have so much in common: they even both painted nude self-portraits in their later years.
|Suzanne Valadon, Self-Portrait, oil on canvas, 1938|