If Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Herb Ritts could have a drink together, they’d find so much to talk about that the drinks might just keep coming. The Cincinnati Art Museum’s total collection of Toulouse-Lautrec prints (43) and posters (eight) fill niches at right and left of the Great Hall balcony entrance to Herb Ritts: L.A. Style, providing that sensuous outlay of black and white photographs with an historic backdrop.
Each of these men shaped their work for broad publication in popular media to attract people to particular strands of show business. Media in the late 19th century was different than that in the latter part of the 20th and so was show business, but the artistic urge to use to the fullest whatever technique is at hand never falters. My assignment is to review Toulouse-Lautrec and the Spectacles of Paris, but I suggest you look at that show and then take in L.A. Style with “compare and contrast” in mind.
So what did Toulouse-Lautrec do? He moved into the rapidly developing field of color lithography and put it to work for commercial purposes in so individual and able a manner that his prints and posters are in museum collections throughout the Western world. One example seen here is “Aristide Bruant in His Cabaret” (1893), the brilliant blue cloak enlivened by a swath of red scarf, that red repeated at cuff, the Aristide himself looking over his shoulder as we see him from the rear. So frequently reproduced, we know the piece immediately. Celebrities were frequent subjects.
Another familiar work is “The Jockey,” shown here in two states.
One is a first edition black and white, the other five colors in the second state, second edition. The jockeys stand in their stirrups, the foreshortened horses have all four feet off the ground, the tension and excitement are palpable. The label tells us that this late work (1899) reflects the artist’s youth on family estates in the south of France, where horses were a part of life, and underlines the fact that he came from an aristocratic background. Another well-known work, “Au Moulin Rouge,” takes us right into the famous cabaret, perhaps still famous because of Toulouse-Lautrec.
There is a pared down simplicity at work here, counter to some of the excesses of the late 19th century, that came about by chance encounters rather than scholarly input. Importations from Japan were popular in Paris; these objects frequently were packed in paper that bore woodcut impressions of Japanese ukiyo-e works, throw-away prints that used strong line and dispensed with detail Parisian artists noticed. The ukiyo-e packing may have made a more lasting impression than whatever it had been wrapped around, as Toulouse-Lautrec and others made good use of the fresh approach. See the black and white lithographs, executed with a rapid line and telling use of black areas, produced by Toulouse-Lautrec for the weekly newspaper L’Escarmouche.
The Japanese influence is even invoked in the title of “Divan Japonais,” a poster for a cafe/concert hall with Japanese décor. Look at the opposing curves of hat brims, the cane’s sumptuous handle, the lady’s fan that opposes all the curves by lying flat and folded. The poster compels attention.
Two books with Toulouse-Lautrec illustrations have been lent to the exhibition and indicate another facet of his work, and the 1896 poster “Cyclist Michael,” which does belong to the Museum, presents another less familiar form in that it is large, horizontal and limited in palette. A lithograph, originally executed in olive green that has turned black with the years, “Cyclist Michael” was commissioned by a bicycle company and shows a famous racer, Jimmy Michael, his trademark toothpick in his mouth, on a bicycle with a chain that could possibly power a locomotive. The chain is wrong, the company required a re-working, but Toulouse-Lautrec for his own pleasure printed a few of these. This print required extensive conservation before it could be included here, but is a standout in the exhibition.
The artist’s shafts of humor and brilliant rendering of his contemporary scene have meant a long life for works that might have had a brief showing. The Cincinnati Art Museum’s strong holdings of his work reflect three supporters of the print department whose influence in its formation can’t be underestimated: Herbert Greer French, Allyn C. Poole and Albert P. Strietmann.
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