Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 11, 2006
Richard Thomson, Phillip Dennis Cate, and Mary Weaver Chapin Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre Exh. cat. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005. 308 pp.; 370 color ills.; 17 b/w ills. $39.50 (0691129045)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., March 20–June 12, 2005; Art Institute of Chicago, July 16–October 10, 2005

Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre was the first major exhibition of the artist’s work since the 1991–92 retrospective in London and Paris. It was also the first large-scale show of both his paintings and prints in the United States in more than twenty-five years. In contrast to its predecessors this show focused on a single theme—the relationship of Lautrec’s art to Montmartre, the bohemian and lower-class Parisian district where he worked and where he found his characteristic subjects. The accompanying volume provides substantial documentation and analysis in support of the exhibition’s mission of setting the artist’s work in its socio-historical context, thus carrying further the initiative of the earlier exhibition catalogue (Toulouse-Lautrec, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991) to which Richard Thomson was also a major contributor. In his introductory essay to the current catalogue, Thomson makes explicit that since Lautrec “was a social painter” it is necessary to “explore the aspects of contemporary society with which Lautrec’s work interacted, examine the visual culture of Montmartre, and assess Lautrec’s images alongside those of others. This in contrast to a strictly biographical angle, which might emphasize Lautrec the aristocrat, the handicapped, the alcoholic. The objective here is to explore the modernity of Lautrec and how it was formed by social and cultural circumstances” (3).

In fact, since the artist’s death in 1901, the literature and criticism on Lautrec have been largely biographical in orientation, with an overriding tendency to explain his work as a somewhat idiosyncratic product of his unusual life. In the past twenty-five years a small number of scholars have begun to redress this situation by making efforts to relate Lautrec’s work to contemporary artistic, intellectual, social, and political developments. The exhibition catalogue builds on these tendencies. It draws on and distills recent scholarship on Lautrec by the authors and others, while breaking some new ground and making original observations that bear further scholarly investigation. The authors follow the pioneering example of art historians T. J. Clark and Robert Herbert in arguing that an understanding of the sociology of leisure in late nineteenth-century Paris can illuminate the work of progressive artists. Moreover, the authors bring to Lautrec studies new perspectives gained from the work of intellectual and social historians (e.g., Charles Rearick, Joel Siegel, P. David Marshall, Leo Braudy, and others) on the cultural and social history of turn-of-the-century Paris, the commercialization of entertainment, the sociology of prostitution, and the culture of celebrity.

The book is handsomely designed and lavishly illustrated, with all art works originally in color reproduced in 370 high-quality color illustrations, while the 60 black-and-white illustrations are reserved for black-and-white prints and photographs. Illustrations are conveniently placed adjacent to or in sections directly following the relevant text. The volume’s three essays are rich in ideas and information. Thomson’s essay on “Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre: Depicting Decadence in Fin-de-Siècle Paris” covers the chronology of Lautrec’s relationship with Montmartre between 1885 and 1895, and introduces a variety of pertinent issues. It was in Montmartre of the 1880s that Lautrec learned the “vocabularies of innovation and disruption” that informed much of his art. Thomson sets these anti-establishment attitudes against the background of the “uneasy” Third Republic and its decadent proclivities, a subject he has investigated extensively in his recent book, The Troubled Republic (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004). In his paintings of the 1880s, Lautrec, like other artists and writers, began to depict character types representative of the different social classes as a way of addressing social questions. In the early 1890s he increasingly translated these types into the form of caricature, which Thomson describes as a specifically modern technique that can be identified both with a new, more penetrating realism and with the rapidity of the urban pedestrian glance. Thomson suggests the intriguing possibility of a relationship between Lautrec’s exploitation of facial expression and body language to convey states of mind (e.g., in his studies of Jane Avril and Yvette Guilbert) and contemporary investigations by psychologists (such as Jean-Martin Charcot, Paul Richier, and Pierre Janet). More specifically, he relates the “suggestive power of caricature and silhouette” in the art of Lautrec and his contemporaries to the use of “free association to explore the subconscious.” Finally, Thomson charts Lautrec’s gradual move away from Montmartre in the mid nineties, as the entertainment industry shifted to central Paris and as Lautrec began to move in more “highbrow” circles, such as that of the Revue Blanche.

Dennis Cate’s essay on “The Social Menagerie of Toulouse-Lautrec’s Montmartre” offers a complementary perspective to that of Thomson by providing a more detailed account of the Montmartre background. Cate employs his encyclopedic knowledge of the subject to document the characteristic personalities, places, attitudes, and activities of Lautrec’s Montmartre. He effectively recreates its ambiance of modernism and artistic experimentation, as well as its spirit of fumisme—“a form of tongue-in-cheek and at times macabre humor based on skepticism and on the debunking of hypocrisy in society” (26). Drawing on several of his own previous publications, Cate enriches this account with references to little known quasi-fictional accounts (by Oscar Méténier, Felicien Champsaur, Emile Goudeau, and Victor Joze) and artistic examples (e.g., the decor of Chat Noir by Adolphe Willette and others). He traces the “the rise of Montmartre as a pleasure center” and its transition from a place of bohemian and lower-class identity to an increasingly commercialized entertainment district. Even more could be said about the reasons for this transition, which Lautrec’s work so acutely documents. For instance, one might consider the attractiveness of the district to the bourgeoisie, who, motivated by a desire for self-liberation from stultifying traditions and repressive strictures on personal behavior, sought to embrace the freedom of bohemia and the more uninhibited mores of the lower classes, and were willing to pay a price to do so.

Mary Weaver Chapin’s essay on “Toulouse-Lautrec and the Culture of Celebrity,” the product of her excellent dissertation (“Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and the Café-Concert: Printmaking, Publicity, and Celebrity in Fin-de Siècle Paris.” PhD diss., New York University, 2002), elaborates on the relationship of Lautrec’s art to this commercialization. She focuses on the role Lautrec’s work, particularly his posters, played as publicity for the new entertainment industry and its stars, setting his art into the context of such broader changes in society as urbanization, the expansion of leisure and entertainment, the cult of personality, and the concept of Parisian life as spectacle. While this context has been established by numerous scholars, Chapin builds significantly on it, and offers new and original perspectives on Lautrec. She provides an especially sharp analysis of Lautrec’s posters—his “hybrid creations of art and publicity” made for marketing purposes—and the effectiveness of their reductive style, which distilled the essences of the celebrities he depicted, as a tool for publicity. She then explains how the success of his posters led to further commissions for luxury print editions—albums and books that also promoted the celebrities of the day. This culture of celebrity spilled over into Lautrec’s paintings, where he sometimes treated the same personalities, but often in a more psychologically probing fashion. Chapin’s discussion of the paintings suggests a dichotomy between Lautrec’s publicity work and his paintings: the former are more public, ephemeral, and perhaps more shallow and chic in their accentuated modern style, while the latter tend to be more private and introspective. Rather than pursuing this distinction, however, Chapin, incorrectly, I think, mischaracterizes Lautrec’s problematic painting, Au Moulin Rouge, with its bizarre, looming green-faced figure, as a public work, but overlooks its more disturbing expressive aspect, which conveys the seedy, macabre underside of the Moulin Rouge, along with Lautrec’s awareness that the pleasures of turn-of-the-century entertainment were often tinged with melancholy and tension. In her conclusion, Chapin introduces the particularly interesting and ironic point that, in effect, “Lautrec’s finest publicity work was for himself” (60), so that in promoting celebrities and their decadent milieux, of which he presented himself as a denizen, he projected his own mythologized public persona and created his own celebrity. In a sense, therefore, Lautrec was complicit in fashioning the picture of himself that has determined popular and scholarly treatments of him for more than a hundred years.

Following these three essays is—rather than a formal catalogue per se—a series of six succinct discussions (four by Thomson and two by Chapin), each of which explicates a section of the thematically organized exhibition and each of which precedes the illustrations of the works in that section. These are: “Introducing Montmartre,” “The Chat Noir and the Cabarets,” “Dance Halls,” “Stars of the Café-Concert,” “Maisons Closes,” and “The Circus.” While the authors do not comment on every image individually, these shorter discussions draw out central themes and detail relevant aspects of Montmartre life and culture, while introducing a variety of art works in all media, both fine art and ephemera, including paintings, drawings, posters, playbills, prints, sculpture, photographs, journal and book illustrations, song sheets covers, and invitations by Lautrec and his lesser known contemporaries. This part of the catalogue, then, fills out the broader visual/artistic context in which Lautrec worked and allows us to see his choice of themes as far from isolated and idiosyncratic, but rather as ones that engrossed many of his generation. In comparing Lautrec’s works to those of his contemporaries, we also are able to discern the superiority of his artistic skills, which allowed him to bring the banal subjects of the press and of advertising to the level of high art. Of particular interest are Chapin’s expansion of her discussion of Lautrec’s publicity art in her introduction to the café-concert stars and Thomson’s discussion of the complexity of Lautrec’s brothel subjects and the difficulties of reading them. Are they simply realistic and frank genre scenes; do they have a titillating dimension; are they products of an attempt to be objective, sympathetic, or cynical? Thomson provides no definitive answers, and clearly this is an area for further investigation. Finally, concluding the book is a checklist of works in the exhibition and a select bibliography.

This publication is a significant contribution to Toulouse-Lautrec studies. It introduces the most up-to-date perspectives on his art in an eminently readable and lucid form, and suggests directions for further research. Scholars will perhaps be disappointed by the absence of catalogue entries, and the somewhat sparse and concise nature of the citations, which might have provided a more extensive overview of the scholarship and the issues. In fact, the book locates itself in a rather ambiguous territory—somewhere between a fully scholarly enterprise and an accessible companion piece to a blockbuster exhibition. It succeeds remarkably, nonetheless, in its dual mission as a book for specialized scholars and as an enlightening narrative for a general audience. For the latter, by refocusing attention on the art, it serves as a much-needed corrective to the popular understanding of Lautrec, which has been determined by the literature’s biographical slant and by fictionalized accounts of the artist’s life. For the former, in its penetrating analyses, it is a noteworthy addition to a growing body of new scholarship.

Gale B. Murray
Professor of Art History and Art Department Chair, Colorado College