Revisiting the genius of Toulouse-Lautrec at Chrysler exhibit

By Mark St. John Ericksonmerickson@dailypress.com
The famous night-life of late-1800s Paris returns in this collection of Toulouse-Lautrec prints and posters fr

Few artworks have announced the arrival of a new talent so spectacularly as the eye-popping poster that introduced Paris to Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Pasted up all over the city in December 1891, some 3,000 copies of this startlingly large, wildly original view of the notorious Moulin Rouge cabaret burst onto the streets all at once, seizing the attention of passers-by with a sight "so new and so completely unexpected that it was immediately noticed," late-1800s French cultural historian Ernest Maindron observed.

Double-sided copies of the 61/2-by-31/4-foot poster took to the streets on wheels, too, adding the wonder of movement to a composition so novel and unforgettable that its 27-year-old creator became an instant sensation.

"I still remember the shock I had when I first saw the Moulin Rouge poster," wrote French artist Francis Jourdain years later, describing how he'd been affected at the age of 15.

"This remarkable and highly original poster was, I remember, carried along the Avenue de L'Opera in a kind of small cart. I was so enchanted that I walked alongside it on the pavement."

More than 125 years later, "Moulin Rouge" ranks as one of the most seminal images in the history of lithography, the history of advertising and the history of Western art.

Yet the intentionally subversive and titillating portrait of the city's most outrageous can-can dancer hard at work still seems as fresh, ingenious and amazing today as it was on the morning that Paris awoke to see it.

"Look at all that chaos. Look at all that energy. Look at all that fun," says Chrysler Museum of Art Chief Curator Lloyd DeWitt, leaning in to admire this star from the museum's newest exhibit.

"This was Toulouse-Lautrec's first major commission — and he's pushing the boundaries of what was possible in ways so striking and bold that we still respond to them today. It's a fantastic image, and it made his career."

Stellar examples

Made up of more than 100 works, "The Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec: Prints and Posters from the Museum of Modern Art" gives Hampton Roads its best chance in nearly a generation to explore the breakout talent of Paris' great fin de siècle genius.

Not since 1997 and the Chrysler's showing of the Baldwin M. Baldwin Collection from the San Diego Museum of Art has such a rich and wide assortment of his work been on view here — and the MoMA collection is at least as impressive.

It started back in 1931 with Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, who began acquiring Toulouse-Lautrec's celebrated posters and lithographs at about the same time Colonial Williamsburg opened its first exhibit showcasing her pioneering collection of American folk art.

And after she gave those images to the New York museum she helped found, MoMA continued to add to the collection.

"These are things that really didn't survive — that were not meant to survive," DeWitt says, describing a body of work that includes illustrations for books, magazines, theater programs and even menus in addition to Toulouse-Lautrec's signature lithographs and posters.

"So to have a collection as rich and deep as this is quite incredible. I can't think of one that's stronger."

Equally impressive is the remarkable state of preservation exhibited by the iconic posters, all but a few of which lived only a few weeks on the walls and kiosks of Paris before being covered over by newer advertisements or destroyed by the weather.

"This is quite an amazing example," DeWitt says, studying the 125-year-old surface of Toulouse-Lautrec's landmark portrait of Parisian showman Aristide Bruant.

"Look at these huge areas of bright bold color. It's all very consistent and incredibly pristine — even though the inks were not meant to last forever."

Finding fame

Descended from three very old and noble lines of the French aristocracy, Toulouse-Lautrec seems an unlikely candidate to become what MoMA Curator Sarah Suzuki describes in the exhibit catalog as "the outrageous drunken genius dwarf of bohemian Paris."

But stricken by congenital health problems in his youth — plus two broken thighs that failed to heal and grow — he limped into manhood as a stunted, malproportioned figure barely 4 feet 8 inches tall.

And not until he moved to Paris to study art in 1882 did the 18-year-old outsider find a haven that embraced him like the eccentric cast of artists, writers, performers and social outcasts he met in the rundown Montmartre nightclub district.

Though classically trained according to the elite academic art principles of the day, the young aristocrat was a populist, too, and when his teachers sent him to Montmartre to sketch scenes from life, he quickly became a fixture.

Among his neighbors after moving there in 1884 was the great Impressionist painter Edgar Degas, who worked in the house next door, and such classmates and companions as Vincent van Gogh, whose unseen talent Toulouse-Lautrec once defended so strongly that he challenged a critic to a duel.

Still, the artist's early social success was unmatched by critical acclaim until fall 1891, when he was commissioned to create a poster for the two-year-old nightclub Moulin Rouge.

Just that March, he'd been so impressed by the radically flattened space, brilliant yellow color and bold, decorative black line incorporated in an arresting poster by then-unknown Pierre Bonnard that he'd been overwhelmed, writes Ruth E. Iskin in "The Poster: Art, Advertising, Design and Collecting."

Yet after hunting him down to pay homage, Toulouse-Lautrec boldly amped up the game, coupling the influence of Japanese prints and photography with his unrivaled grasp of the cabaret milieu and its star's signature physical traits in a breakthrough image that was far larger, more dynamic and still more unorthodox.

In the upper left-hand corner, the phrase "Moulin Rogue" extends across the top of the poster again and again, reaching out from a single giant, long-legged "M" to form a kind of scarlet canopy over a dance floor.

Black-silhouetted spectators look on from the far perimeter, the outlines of their top hats and feathered bonnets framing the frenetic figure of the famous can-can dancer La Goulue, who raises her right leg and kicks her skirt into the air to reveal the provocative white glow of her undergarments.

Jutting up from the foreground is the gray, boldly outlined silhouette of her lanky dance partner, "No-Bones" Valentine, while additional lines of scarlet text float across the bottom of the poster.

"Other artists may have considered posters commercial and secondary. But after the success of 'Moulin Rouge,' they became Toulouse-Lautrec's life work," DeWitt says.

" 'Posters — that's all there is,' he said."

Immense output

A decade after this extraordinary triumph, Toulouse-Lautrec was dead, the victim of a lifetime of physical infirmity made worse by nonstop partying.

"He hit the clubs pretty hard every night," DeWitt says, describing an artist who could walk into virtually any dance hall in Montmartre and be greeted with a reserved table.

"The amazing thing is that he was still there at the press every day supervising the printing. In 10 years he produced 353 lithographs and posters, and that's a tremendous output — especially for someone who lived hard and wasn't well."

In addition to the artist's iconic posters, including his many portraits of showman Aristide Bruant and dancer Jane Avril, the exhibit showcases dozens of the smaller black-and-white lithographs that Toulouse-Lautrec created for collectors.

Also on view are rare surviving copies of the magazines, books and even theater programs and menus he elevated into works of art through his extraordinary illustrations.

"With the way the images bleed out over the text, these programs are some of the jazziest things he does," DeWitt says.

"They can be quite mesmerizing."

Still, the riveting posters are the images that tug at the eyes most strongly, partly because Toulouse-Lautrec understood so well how to command his viewers to notice.

Just take a look at one astonishing portrait of the high-kicking Avril, whose saucy black stockings, white petticoats and scarlet skirt are as arresting as her expressive face — and then made even more so by the sensuous black frame the artist conjures up from the neck and head of an upright bass being played by an intoxicated musician.

"Who thinks of that?" DeWitt asks, gazing at the image in wonder.

"This is all about thinking commercially — about what jumps off the surface of the paper and what can be seen from a distance. He's really trying to grab your attention."

Erickson can be reached by phone at 757-247-4783.

If you go

What: "The Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec: Prints and Posters from the Museum of Modern Art."

Where: Chrysler Museum of Art, One Memorial Place, Norfolk.

When: Through June 18.

Cost: Free.

Info: 757-664-6200; chrysler.org.

Online: Go to dailypress.com/art to see a photo gallery and video of the exhibit.

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