The colour and decadence of fin de siècle Montmartre comes to Bath with an exhibition of original posters by Toulouse-Lautrec and his contemporaries
Quite apart from the drinking, carousing and the copious cabarets, fin de siècle Montmartre in Paris was a very colourful place.
This was thanks in no small measure to the vast and colourful lithographic posters that decorated the district to advertise the various bars, music halls and cabarets including the Moulin Rouge.
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Today these posters have become synonymous with the Belle Époque, the hedonistic period bookended by the Franco Prussian and First World Wars, and were created by some of the best painters, printers and designers of the day; among them the Post-Impressionist French painter, printmaker, caricaturist and illustrator Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864 – 1901).
The Victoria Art Gallery in Bath is evoking the joie de vivre of these hedonistic and highly artistic years in the French capital with a stunning exhibition that displays Lautrec’s complete collection of Parisian posters – many of them made for the Moulin Rouge – for the first time in the UK together with those made by his artistic brethren.
More than 80 iconic posters, from the Musée d’Ixelles-Bruxelles, all of them originals and many of them rare and seen here for the first time, are featured in the show in their full colourful glory, some of them in giant format hanging from floor to ceiling to recreate how they were originally seen on the streets of Paris.
Besides the 32 posters by Lautrec works by celebrated poster artists of the day include examples by the likes of Alphonse Mucha, Pierre Bonnard and Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen who helped revolutionise the world of graphic design in the absinthe-fuelled bohemian playground of Montmartre.
“Montmartre was popular with artists because rent was cheap and performers, who came from some very shady backgrounds, also gravitated towards it,” says Jon Benington, Victoria Art Gallery Manager and exhibition curator. “So it was kind of a classless level playing field.”
For the high born Lautrec it was the perfect place to gain a level of acceptance that he felt was denied to him in his family circle.
A viscount by birth, most biographers agree that his short stature and disability was a result of a congenital disorder brought about by his parents being first cousins. After breaking both his legs as a teenager and his growth was stunted he pursued art as a means of escape.
“Montmartre had been attracting rebellious types for several decades before Lautrec arrived”
“I think, because he couldn’t take up his expected place in that level of society he felt rejected by it,” adds Benington. “But Montmartre was full of alternative types and they didn’t judge you, they just accepted you for what you were and he did the same towards them.”
Montmartre’s heady mix of different art forms – ranging from music, theatre and dance to art, photography, prose and poetry – sprang from an anti-establishment tradition that dated back to the 1870 Franco Prussian War and the Paris Commune and Lautrec happily fell right into the centre of it.
“Montmartre had been attracting rebellious types for several decades before Lautrec arrived,” adds Benington, “and then in the 1880s a law came out in France that for the first time permitted freedom of the press, and that was just like letting the bung out of the bath!
“There was a real print revival, alternative publications came out of nowhere and at the same time they also permitted poster advertising. All of a sudden posters were put up on hoardings all over Paris, some of them in their thousands, and they became the street art of the 1880s and 1890s.”
Another factor that fuelled the explosion in posters was the uptake in the use of Lithography, or drawing on stone. Invented in the 1790s in Munich by Alois Senefelder, who used it to make cheap and easy theatre posters, by the 1840s artists had begun experimenting with the possibilities of colour lithography. During the 1860s French artists like Jules Cheret, who had been to Britain to study the British approach to design and print, brought his skills back to Paris where he plied his trade with commercial clients.
“Lautrec came along slightly later and the thing that inspired him was a poster for champagne that Pierre Bonnard had made in 1889 of a pretty young woman. When Lautrec saw Bonnard’s poster he thought: “My God, look at those colours, look at that approach to design, it’s so inventive”.
“The thing they were really getting off on was Japanese woodblock printing with flat, bright colours. It was all about design and where you place things on the page, it wasn’t about perspective, it was a whole kind of new design revolution and Lautrec was as much inspired by that as Bonnard was.”
The Moulin Rouge opened in 1889 and immediately took full advantage of these new colourful innovations in poster advertising. Directed by the gregarious Charles Zidler, the cabaret soon became Lautrec’s night-spot of choice. His very first poster, ‘Moulin Rougue, La Goulue (1891)’ came into being when he was commissioned to create one to advertise the venue.
3,000 copies of this poster were put up in the streets of Paris in December 1891 and it became an instant success, bringing Lautrec’s art to a broad audience for the first time and securing the reputation of Zilder’s new cabaret.
“So Lautrec made his first poster for the Moulin Rouge on the back of seeing this amazing poster by his colleague,” says Benington. “And that’s another lovely thing about the period; they weren’t rivals, they weren’t at each other’s throats.
Jane Avril is just one of several larger-than-life personalities who spill off the colourful display of posters
They were young, they were ambitious and they were struggling with their oil paintings to gain acceptance because they were so revolutionary. If they could get jobs working for commercial clients, they needed the money and took them.”
Lautrec’s Moulin Rouge poster also introduced the first of several Parisian dancers and other colourful characters of his biography. La Goulue, meaning the Glutton, was the stage name of Louise Weber, a can-can dancer who gained her dubious nom de plume for a habit of guzzling patrons’ drinks while dancing.
She is just one of several larger-than-life personalities from the Montmartre nightlife world who spill off the colourful display of posters.
One of Lautrec’s favourite performers was Jane Avril, the illegitimate child of a prostitute who is thought to have suffered from a nervous disorder called Chorea, which was also known as St Vitus’ Dance. According to her biography Avril began dancing when she was incarcerated in the Salpêtrière Hospital for two years.
“The dance became a means of controlling her movements,” says Benington. “Rather than seeing it as a disability she made a virtue of it.”
After being spotted in a park dancing by the writer René Boylesve, who became her lover, she was encouraged to dance professionally and became one of the Moulin Rouge’s first signed performers.
Lautrec represented her in many posters from 1891 to 1899 and became obsessed with her. For her part Avril was quick to see the potential of using posters to advertise her personal brand and it was her alliances with artists, notably Lautrec, that set her on the path to fame, commencing with the Moulin Rouge which was her favourite venue.
Another favourite was Yves Guilbert. “She’s a really interesting case,” says Benington, “because she went into stage acting at first before she went into Music Hall because as a performer you could earn four times as much as you could as an actress. She didn’t have a good singing voice but she developed a style of half-talking, half-singing.
“I think that’s what was so interesting about this period. These performers would make virtues of a quirk or something that was very distinctively them and nobody else. In a way it is the same thing in that the artists were doing as well.”
Of all the performers that Lautrec knew, Guilbert was the one that appears most in his art – upwards of 30 or 31 different occasions.
Lautrec also applied his design skills to bolster the fame of another close friend, the nightclub performer Aristide Bruant. The latter was renowned for his coarse songs dealing with the hardships endured by the working classes – the criminals, drunks, prostitutes and tramps who inhabited Montmartre – and they were sung in street slang. Lautrec’s poster was created to promote the singer’s performances at the upscale café-concert Ambassadeurs in central Paris.
Many of the posters will be familiar, others are lesser known, like his depiction of Jane Avril (1899), which was Lautrec’s last poster featuring the dancer and the second-last poster he made. Considered one of his most compelling, sadly by this time alcohol had replaced art as a Lautrec’s primary means of escape and just a few weeks after he finished it, he had a breakdown and was institutionalised. Avril rejected the poster and it was never used publicly, making examples particularly rare.
Like many of the posters in the show it is printed in large scale and visitors will be struck by the sheer size of some of them and the curation, which layers them to offer a sense of the intensity and impact of the colours on display in turn of the century Paris.
“Quite a few of them in our show are actually printed on multiple sheets, joined together – I think that’s one of the nice things about it,” adds Benington. “They’re not pristine things, because when they were originally made, their life expectancy was just a couple of months. They would be torn down or they would be pasted over again.
“People were just awed by them, amazed by them and had never seen anything like it before, so the most popular ones, people would go out at night under the cover of darkness and rip them off the hoardings and take them back home with them.”
Hopefully visitors to the Victoria Art Gallery will not react in quite the same way as the Parisians of the Belle Epoch, but they will doubtlessly be similarly awed.
Toulouse-Lautrec and the Masters of Montmartre is at the Victoria Art Gallery, Bath from February 15 – May 26 2020.
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