Posters of Paris: Toulouse-Lautrec & His Contemporaries
Dallas Museum of Art
Through January 20, 2013
Remember that time in early January 1978 when you “borrowed” that Sex Pistols concert poster from a wall at the Longhorn Ballroom? Yeah, me either. But had I been much older at the time, and had actually been there for one their very last shows, I probably would have. Like an 1890’s Parisian with a wicked case of poster mania, or affichiomanie, I would’ve “borrowed” that poster, slapping the 24.5 x 16.5 inch three-color print of Johnny Rotten’s penetrating eyes and sarcastic sneer onto my bedroom wall to enhance its sophisticated teen-age décor and impress all my friends with my 1978 punk rock coolness.
If you love being cool, keeping up with the latest celebrity culture, and understand that advertising is art (because advertising is Art), the Dallas Museum of Art’s (DMA) current exhibit, Posters of Paris: Toulouse-Lautrec & His Contemporaries, is a show for you. This comprehensive exhibit, an obvious labor of love by Mary Weaver Chapin, former Associate Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Milwaukee Art Museum, and in turn, Dr. Heather McDonald, Associate Curator of European Art at the DMA, features 100 lithographic advertisements, or affiches, from turn-of-the-century Paris. Through these affiches, you see how ads for cabaret dancers to French chocolate, dance hall singers, newspapers, and even German bicycles, provide a delicious peek into a revived 1890’s European culture enjoying economic and technological prosperity within a newly renovated and flourishing city. Walking down the bustling main boulevards in the heart of Paris, early Belle Epoch Parisians would be hard-pressed to deny the seduction of these ads. Street culture not only fell for the products and entertainments being sold, but they recognized how cool this “art for the masses” could be when used as wallpaper in their homes and as themes for parlor game parties.
Emphasizing the poster illustrations of three fin de siècle artists, Jules Chéret, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Théophile Alexandre Steinlen, the first gallery introduces you to the works of Chéret. Often referred to as the “father of poster art”, Chéret’s contributions toward improving the technical process of lithography brought vibrant color to the images that influenced unwitting Parisians pedestrians to want, take and have. Looking at his frothy Cherettes, I could see how they seduced the target audience with their lighthearted, smiling visages and care-free poses. Viewing these lovely ladies, enraptured with their own fabulous lifestyles, I decided that the poster of vaudeville and burlesque star, Loie Fuller in Foiles_Bergere: La Danse du Feu, 1897 would go quite well on a wall in my parlor. That is, if I had a parlor. La Loie would grace the wall above my spinet piano to greet all visitors, and she would dance above the piano while my gentleman callers played the keys below.
Chéret can also add “father of airbrush and Photoshop” to his résumé. Running on a screen next to my newly chosen parlor wallpaper is an 1896 hand-colored recording of La Loie performing her Serpentine Dance. The woman in the recording is somewhat dumpy and drab, and certainly not the fair-haired goddess of movement and sensuality depicted in La Danse du Feu. Celebrity status image control, you’re nothing new.
Gracing the next gallery with my unphotoshopped and unretouched visage, I came face to face with Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s Moulin Rouge – La Goulue, 1891. You know this one. You’ve probably seen it numerous times, along with Steinlen’s Tournee du Chat Noie de Rodolphe Salis, 1896, another iconic and over-commercialized image. Your Grandma probably found a framed print of the Chat Noie at Garden Ridge, and hung it on her living room wall next to some family portraits or her cross stitch exhibit. Unfortunately, Grandma may not realize that this image is an advertisement for a popular cabaret in 1890’s Montmartre, and that the black cat represents the bawdy humor and sexuality of the bohemian artists and performers who ran in its social circle. But, what Grandma doesn’t know can’t hurt her.
Toulouse-Lautrec, with his myriad health issues, spent a lot of his time in Montmartre and with the entertainers of the nearby cabaret house, the Moulin Rouge. As their number one groupie, Toulouse’s observations and interactions with the performers and barflies provided him with some good psychological assessments of these unique characters. Gone are Chéret’s lighthearted, cheery angelic femmes. Lautrec’s posters sold entertainment through behind-the-scenes scandals and the underlying personalities of the entertainers. In Moulin Rouge – La Goulue, 1891, La Goulue’s superficial dancing talent is not the selling point of this ad; it’s Goulue’s unspoken talent being sold to you through her exposed, petti-coated bum in the center of the illustration (and the shadowed gentleman standing in its wake). Sadly, Lautrec’s posters win the award for “most cold and depressing” advertising campaign in my book. I didn’t see a single one in the exhibit I wanted to borrow for a wall in my home.
As mentioned before, Théophile Alexandre Steinlen’s Tournee du Chat Noie de Rodolphe Salis, 1896 is part of this show, but his Compagnie Francaise des Chocolats et des Thés, 1895, is the one that I’d borrow for my kitchen wall. Steinlen’s depiction of a mother, a daughter (his own) and a curious calico cat made me feel warm and fuzzy inside. Had I been walking down Boulevard Saint-Germain on a cold December day in 1885, I would’ve quietly removed the poster from its Morris Column, gone to the closest épicerie, and ended my day with a steaming cup of hot cocoa, in my cozy kitchen, while viewing the comforting new image I just put on the wall above the table.
There are additional Steinlen posters that I enjoyed, such as the huge La Rue, 1896 and Lait pur stérilisé de la Vingeanne, 1894, which feature not only his little daughter, but also more cats. Steinlen’s inclusion of various cats in his poster illustrations is a nice touch and a great emotional trigger for sales. And I’m not a cat person … so that’s saying something.
Rounding out the exhibit were some fantastic poster ads that I would’ve borrowed for the walls of my den, bedroom and front-entry hallway, like the huge L’ Hippodrome, ca.1900 by Manuel Orazi, and various advertisements of Sarah Bernhardt by the “father of Art Nouveau”, Alphonse Mucha. L’ Hippodrome advertises a show at the newly opened circus-style venue in Paris. In this poster, a horse race, or more likely a performance of Turks chasing an innocent young woman on horseback, is depicted in elaborate art nouveau style. I’d stick this ad on a wall in my entry way, welcoming guests to the circus-style venue I call my home.
I found one of my favorite affiches toward the end of the exhibit: Cycles Gladiator, ca.1895, artist unknown (simply initialed “L.W”). And although I’m partial blondes, (being one myself), the image of a floating naked blonde in space, steering a bicycle with winged wheels, kind of rocks. I also like the “artist unknown” part of this advertisement. You can muse if the artist was a man or a woman, and if there was some kind of mysterious reason behind the anonymity of the illustration. Or maybe the illustrator was just cranking out the affiche to meet a deadline. I think this poster would go well on my office wall, if somewhat-scandalous nudity was allowed there. During a busy day I would spin my chair around to view the woman suspended above her bike, in all her flowing hair and free-flight glory, imagining that was me, floating away to Happy Hour, an Italian vacation or a weekend filled with massages.
While there are many more posters and artists I’ve not referenced in this exhibit, Posters of Paris: Toulouse-Lautrec & His Contemporaries runs October 14 through January 20, and you should definitely spend an hour or two checking it out. This exhibit will remind you that you’re a lot like the 1890s affichiomaniacs. Being part of a target audience through clever artistic solicitations is something kind of inescapable. Look at ol’Johnny Rotten now, peddling his Public Image for Country Life British Butter. If I was walking down a main street in the center of town and saw an affiche of him slapping that creamy goodness onto a slice of bread, well … hello new kitchen wallpaper.
Preview of Posters of Paris at the Dallas Museum of Art – October 14, 2012