Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, an aristocrat who rubbed shoulders with popular actors, singers, dancers, circus performers, prostitutes and other denizens of the demimonde, embodied the spirit of Paris at the turn of the 20th century.
At 5 feet tall with a stunted body that was the result of generations of inbreeding, he was the epitome of the outsider. Cut off by his fragile health from the typical activities of his social class – sports and hunting – he found solace in painting and drawing the dizzying world of those on the edges of society and their haunts, the bars and brothels, the cabarets and cafe-concerts of Montmartre, a former working-class neighborhood that artists and aristocrats alike flocked to, seeking excitement and entertainment. Even there, where he found acceptance, he was an outsider, an observer who captured with his animated line and bold color the essence of the decadent fin de siècle and the energy of the more optimistic Belle Epoque.
“Toulouse-Lautrec and La Vie Moderne: Paris 1880-1910,” a traveling show organized by Art Services International that makes its last stop at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento (through April 26), attempts to chronicle Toulouse-Lautrec’s world and the peripheral art movements with which it coexisted. The exhibition is accompanied by a major catalog and a slate of auxiliary programs that range from a movie featuring Josephine Baker to an ekphrastic poetry class taught by Sacramento poet laureate Jeff Knorr that is aimed at teaching participants to write poems based on artworks.
In all, the show features the works of 50 artists and 191 works of art, including paintings, drawings, theater posters, journals and other ephemera, as well as rare, zinc cut-out silhouettes used in avant-garde shadow theater productions at the Chat Noir cabaret. It even includes a menu from the cabaret that offers onion soup for 60 centimes and cold roast beef for one franc.
At the core of the show are works that chronicle the new kinds of entertainment that were available to members of a newly leisured populace as a result of industrialization. Here you see classic Toulouse-Lautrec posters and lithographs of singer Aristide Bruant and dancer Jane Avril. In one dashing work, we see Avril and symbolist writer Edouard Dujardin and the performer Yvette Guilbert at Le Divan Japonais, a cafe-concert/cabaret that reflected the Parisian interest in all things Japanese.
While most of Toulouse-Lautrec’s works relate to the world of entertainment, the color lithograph “Le Passagere du 54, Promenade en Yacht” gives us a bold yet wistful image of a beautiful but married woman the artist fell for on a steamer journey from Le Havre to Lisbon. Its bold use of line and abstract architecture distinguish it, as does the poignant backstory.
There are many works by other artists, including Theophile-Alexandre Steinlein’s bold poster for the Chat Noir and Henry Riviere’s playful gouache “Les Chats Noir” in which two scruffy black alley cats play with the moon. The zinc silhouettes, among them a skeletal dead horseman and a woman pulling a donkey, are fascinating and make you wish you could see a performance of this protocinematic art form. Jules Cheret, who is known as the father of poster art, is represented by a poster for an Exposition Universelle des Arts Incoherents, a group of artists who presaged Dada, Surrealism and Conceptual art.
Surrounding this core and spilling out into the hallway behind the main gallery are works by artists of the period who depicted aspects of the Parisian world of the time. The introductory works focus on Parisian life, ranging from landscapes and urban park scenes to nudes and still lifes. For the most part, they are a letdown from the central focus of the show. While they are often pleasant, they just can’t hold up to the electric energy of artists like Lautrec, Steinlein, and Cheret.
In the hallway are works by artists who reacted to and rejected the frivolity and modernism of the period, turning instead to interior, religious and mystical visions. Several of these are intriguing including Gustav-Adolf Mossa’s surreal image of Salome as a fashionable, bare-breasted French woman, Fernand Khnopff’s ethereal image of a woman kissing her lips in a circular mirror, Maurice Dumont’s elaborately framed, fan-shaped image of a mystical woman in a landscape, and Charles Guilloux’s eerie landscape of a tree-lined waterway.
The show concludes with a series of portraits and self-portraits of many of the artists in the show, as well as a strong drawing of actress Sarah Bernhardt.
“Toulouse-Lautrec and La Vie Moderne” is an eclectic show that is problematic in that it tries to do too much in too-unfocused a way. But the heart of the exhibit – the world of Montmartre and its entertainments – is very much worth seeing.
Toulouse-Lautrec and La Vie Moderne: Paris 1880-1910
When: Through April 26. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday
Where: Crocker Art Museum, 216 O St., Sacramento
Cost: $5-$10, free for members and children 6 and under; every third Sunday of the month is “Pay What You Wish Sunday
Information: (916) 808-7000, www.crockerartmuseum.org