LITHO AT ITS LIVELIEST: Toulouse-Lautrec and the Spectacles of Paris at the Cincinnati Art Museum October 13, 2012 -January 13, 2013
by Fran Watson
My first visit to Montmartre was not the flamboyant, sin-drenched, total artistic emersion of which I had dreamed. It turned out to be a touristy square filled with prosaic artists producing prosaic art, with a strong eye to tourists’ expectations. Which may be just as well. The rich perennial party that was Paris in the late 1800’s just may have been too much for me, However, the city of light reached right out to artists of the time, providing material that would eventually define them, even though, to young Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, it was hardly the life he could have expected. Parisian nightlife during this brief creative period produced a plethora of artistic change, arousing contemporary artists to re-examine this storm of innovation with awe.
Born to a background of wealth, and classically educated, the artist was groomed in every way to assume a position in society, just not the society he eventually occupied. Childhood injuries to both of his legs stopped their normal growth, while the rest of his body formed normally. Paternal attitude toward his deformity led him to escape into the demi- monde of Paris, where he was accepted into the growing art colony.
Inventions of the industrial age promoted posters, quickly and cheaply reproduced in lithography. The excitement of gesture laid rapidly onto stone and repeated until the image wore thin, then reworked by printers (not necessarily by the artist) for as many pieces as required. The fact that these still exist with all of the movement and emotion of Toulouse-Lautrec’s hand is always somewhat surprising and unfailingly popular. Lithography proves the perfect method for replicating the actors and stages of the past with the immediacy of the eight posters and forty-three prints shown in “Toulouse-Lautrec and the Spectacles of Paris”. All are part of the permanent collection of the Cincinnati Art Museum , appearing here for the first time in their entirety.
Much is written about his draftsmanship, beautifully illustrated in this exhibit, less about the subtlety of his personal opinions obviously injected quietly into his work. Can-can dancers, flashing forbidden fripperies in joyful disregard of custom, were a long way from universal acceptance. They, the actors, the chanteuses, the celebrated mistresses who gathered the dignified Parisian gentlemen in as darkness fell over the city, were truly the world of Toulouse- Lautrec, one he preferred to depict with more than a little its satire.
This Paris is also the world of the infamous Aristide Bruant, he of the red scarf and patrician attitude. Bruant was one of Toulouse-Lautrec’s first friends. His dashing portrait on posters advertising his club, “Le Chat Noir”, and his act of comedy and song in other popular venues made this night-life entrepreneur nearly immortal. The poster embraces the era’s intrigue with the newly discovered ukiyo-e prints found as wrapping for porcelain shipped from Japan. The style’s huge flat spaces of color contained in simplified forms cropped at surface edges could have been invented for posters, featuring quick , pleasing digestion of facts and inexpensive dissemination. With saturation the goal, the new steam presses could run editions of 2000 prints of a single image in very little time. Although smaller editions, as small as 25, were also produced in the traditional hand-run prints.
Even more telling, though, than this execution of Bruant is a smaller print featuring a far less admirable depiction of the man. Described in the display label as “with harsh features and surly expression”, he appears a bit disheveled, cocky, and common, more the entertainer who delighted in embarrassing guests as he utilized insult as comedy than a heroic figure. This one corner of the exhibit holds some of the finest quick lithographic impressions of the era’s celebrities. The accomplished gesture captured in the small formats of “Yvette Guilbert”, “Paula Brebion”, and the comical “Rejane and Galipaux in Madame Sans-Gene” reign easily over the more popular posters.
Line is the magic in these small, but mighty prints. Thin lips and sharp chins of ladies of the stage, render them unkindly, hard and cold. No detail of their personalities escapes the artist’s ruthless stroke, and the fluid litho crayon easily moves into the caricature mode: concise in its depiction, but less than flattering. Nor do the gentlemen escape unscathed. Tall hats, curling mustaches, padded paunches and past prime time jowls speak of their unsavory role among the cafe ladies.
“Elles” (Those Women) was a portfolio commissioned in 1896 featuring ladies of the brothels attending to the same mundane duties as their more respectable sisters in domestic settings. Here Toulouse-Lautrec allowed more sensuous line, more sympathetic interpretations, and graceful passages while small unobtrusive touches told of their profession. An artist friend introduced Toulouse-Lautrec to the brothels where he lived part of the time, and apparently felt more kindly toward its occupants than toward the celebrities of the clubs. “Profile of a Woman in Bed – Getting Up” depicts one of those little daily moments as the proprietress is seen quietly talking to her daughter against a feathery printed wall-papered background. Nothing has been added to imply any more than an intimate conversation, which says more about Lautrec’s relationship with his fellow residents of the brothels than words could ever do. These surroundings may have been as close as Toulouse-Lautrec ever came to “normal” living as an adult. While similar to Degas’ more distanced views of this seamy side of Paris, a sense of familiarity softens Toulouse- Lautrec’s depictions.
Surrounded by these entertainers as he was, there were admirers of his work who wished to collect the image without the print, and for these, the artist would have small editions run before adding the advertising print for publicity purposes. Yet, he, too, contended with opinion about his work. A large color poster of Jane Avril (known as “The Explosive”) is swaying and entwined by a snake. It was rejected by the dancer’s manager and it was never used, but she continues to undulate, undeterred, for our enjoyment through January 13, 2013.