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Paris Hilt

BMA Gives Us a Flash at the Past of the City of Lights in Toulouse-Lautrec

Post-it: "La Goulue" marks Toulouse-Lautrec's early command of substance and style.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 2/18/2004

Toulouse-Lautrec: Master of the Moulin Rouge

Toulouse-Lautrec: Master of the Moulin Rouge

Swathed in daring dashes of unashamed reds, inscrutable blues, and incandescent yellows, the café life that immediately catches the eye in the Baltimore Museum of Art's Toulouse-Lautrec: Master of the Moulin Rouge teems with the dissolute mystery of belle époque Paris after dark. Its 120 works instantly stir the mind with 1890s Montmartre bohemia, where entertainers such as Jane Avril, La Goulue, Yvette Guilbert, and Artistide Bruant performed for a nightlife-seeking leisure class, poets downed absinthe, shapely young lasses from nowhere could become the toast of Paris, painters earned a living making posters reinforcing these very clichés, and dancers and artists drank away their fortunes as quickly as they amassed them. It's the garish-hued romanticism lovingly alight in movies such as Jean Renoir's French Cancan and Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge! But the exhibition isn't merely an exercise in Francophile nostalgia; en masse it's a testament to the BMA's commitment to works on paper (of the impressive 120 works shown, only four come from outside the BMA's permanent collection), and percolating beneath its surface is the emerging microeconomy that would arise in the 20th-century art world.

Named after the artist whom the era made renown, and and with whom it the period is most immediately associated, this exhibition includes 23 other artists in addition to the colorful, dramatic compositions of the aristocratic-born Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, all feeding off the mid-to-late 19th-century nexus created by Baron Haussman's Paris redesign, the installation of gaslights and eventually electricity, and advances in printmaking (specifically lithography). These artists took their training and post-Impressionist vocabulary and created quick, large, visually alluring posters promoting the cafés, cabarets, and brothels and the personalities that populated them with a frenetic economy: Lines are bold and continuous, the colors are bright and simple, and the compositions almost fly off the pages. And, most importantly, they're enticing enough to make viewers suspect that they were missing something by not being in them.

Toulouse-Lautrec most effectively and completely moved into poster-making from fine art, a visual progress that mimicked a personal one (Toulouse-Lautrec slowly seeped into Montmartre's bad reputation while working at classic, Tenebrist painter Leon Bonnat's atelier at the bottom of the hill on which the district sits). His earliest poster--1891's "Moulin Rouge-La Goulue"--immediately marks Toulouse-Lautrec's emerging command of the lithographic process, though it is more daring for its subject matter than for its visual panache. Here, Toulouse-Lautrec spotlights the dance hall's star to promote the venue, captured midkick doing the can-can. Despite its at-the-time risqué peep, it belies a painterly observation. Backlit silhouettes form mid-composition vanishing lines, drawing the eye to La Goulue's exposed petticoat. Foregrounded is the silhouette of her partner Valentin le Désossé, aka the "boneless" for his wiry dancing style. His right hand is captured raised mid-movement, but it also appears as if it could be held aloft palm facing mouth, a gesture of polite object reminding that what's on display is "scandalous."

Toulouse-Lautrec quickly progressed to more dynamic and simplistic flourishes in his posters, from the imposing portrait of entertainer Bruant clad in blue cape and red beret, the curving crimson against white of 1895's "May Belfourt" that serves as the cat-caressing Irish singer's gown, to the all high-kicking black-hosiery legs against an electric-lit white and yellow wash of 1896's "The Dancing Troupe of Mademoiselle Eglantine."

The BMA displays these prints through seven galleries, shrewdly chronicling the different subjects and variety of commercial outlets Toulouse-Lautrec involved himself: from nightclubs, the theater, and Parisian life to journal covers, book covers, product advertisements, and limited-edition portfolio series. Sprinkled liberally throughout are his contemporary artists and artisans--Edmond-François Aman-Jean, Pierre Bonnard, Mary Cassatt, Jules Chéret, Edgar Degas, Paul Gavarni, Fernand Louis Gottlob, Henri-Gabriel Ibels, Alfred Jarry, Henri Gustave Jossot, Alexandre Lunois, Étienne Moreau-Nelaton, Alphonse Marie Mucha, Alfredo Muller, Manuel Orazi, Josef Rippl-Rónai, Henri Rivière, Paul Signac, Théophile Alexandre Steinlen, Suzanne Valadon, Félix Vallotton, Jacques Villon, Édouard Vuillard--subtly indicating how extensively artists welcomed commercial work during the era.

The pervasiveness of that art/commerce divide is Toulouse-Lautrec's subplot: The economy of 1890s Paris posters presage many mundane 20th-century developments. A technological innovation (the lithograph) was employed by artists, which in turn created mass-produced works using less-expensive materials, sparking an interest in collecting among the middle class. The subject matter skewed toward common folks in common places, highlighted popular culture and its celebrities, and almost always transpired at night and indoors. It all combined to push the quotidian (public street posters) into fine art (museum collections), an evolution that became more prominent during the modern era--see also Andy Warhol's use of the silkscreen process, film/video/photography, the amorphous entirety of computer-based/-generated artworks. For instance, change Toulouse-Lautrec's "Elles" prostitute portfolio from lithography to photographs, and it's not too different from Nan Goldin's unsentimental, ordinary, candid images of her circle of friends. Toulouse-Lautrec et al. weren't the first to use their art skills for commercial uses, but this era was one of the most visibly successful mergers of the two, which continued over the century following to create a coy marketplace where it's frequently difficult to discern where the advertising ends and art begins.

View more images from this exhibition

Toulouse-Lautrec is a special ticketed exhibit. For tickets, call (410) 396-7100 or visit www.artbma.org, or call (410) 481-7328 or visit www.ticketmaster.com.

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