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From the Moulin Rouge to Le Chat Noir: Yonna Yapou reviews an ambitious exhibition that vividly sets Toulouse-Lautrec in the context of life in Montmartre. It opens in Chicago later this month.

Toulouse-Lautrec's art has been thoroughly explored in both exhibitions and books. However, its appeal is perennial, and it is natural that two American museums housing important collections of his work--the National Gallery of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago--should wish to capitalise on their holdings and find a new way to present him to an ever-avid public. This has now been done in a major exhibition, 'Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre', which opened in Washington and moves to Chicago this month. It comprises some 250 items, in a plethora of media, from collections in three continents. The guest curator is Richard Thomson, who was also responsible for the Lautrec retrospective shown in Paris and London in 1991.

The result is a presentation in which there is much to be learned about the context of Lautrec's art and less about the artist himself. The exhibition is, however, a striking reaffirmation of his prodigious talent. Encountering Montmartre in representations by other artists, in ephemera, photographs and the artifacts of entertainment is also a reminder of how much we have been accustomed to viewing it through the individual lense of Lautrec. And it was a heightened pleasure to encounter a Van Gogh, a Degas, a Vuillard or an early Picasso among many other lesser-known names.

The installation in Washington adhered closely to the organisation of the catalogue. What directly confronted visitors upon entering the first room, thrusting them right into Paris, is not a Lautrec, but Steinlen's vast poster La Rue, one of a group of posters advertising the pleasures of Montmartre. Lautrec's own poster Moulin Rouge: La Goulue, which propelled him to fame in 1891, still steals the show here. One then follows a series of spaces arranged by theme: Introducing Montmartre; Dance Halls; The Chat Noir; Aristide Bruant; Cafe Concerts; Stars of the Cafe Concert; Loie Fuller; Maisons Closes; and The Circus.

Paintings that portray known people, types and places in Montmartre make up the first section. Works by artists working in a naturalistic style, such as the Spaniards Ramon Casas and Santiago Rusinol, are a corrective to our notions received from the more familiar and colourful views of the Impressionists and their heirs. In Chicago only, two works are shown that help to set a tone: Puvis de Chavanne's imposing Sacred Grove with Lautrec's even larger 1884 parody of it, humorously inserting himself and contemporaries.

It is in the sections devoted to the world of entertainment that the major contribution to the exhibition made by the numerous loans from the Jane Vorhees Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, becomes apparent. This collection of French prints, publications, photographs, song sheets and some 'high' art from the period between 1870 and 1914 was imaginatively built up by Phillip Dennis Cate at the museum with modest means over some thirty years, largely assisted by Herbert D. and Ruth Schimmel. Various aspects of the popular culture of Paris as illustrated by these artifacts have been the subject of a series of well-researched exhibitions at the Zimmerli (as fully acknowledged in the catalogue). So the material is not entirely new, but this exhibition, introducing it to a much wider public, is a vindication of Cate's endeavours.

The room devoted to the Chat Noir cabaret is a tour-de-force. At either end are the murals that decorated this rather anti-Establishment establishment, founded by Rodolphe Salis, which famously patronised a variety of artists, musicians and writers: Parce Domine by Adolphe Leon Willette and Apotheosis of Cats by Steinlen, brought from the Musee Carnavalet and the Musee d'art moderne in Geneva. Between them is a reconstruction of the shadow theatre that was to be so popular before the advent of cinema, complete with zinc silhouettes used in these labour-intensive productions. Steinlen's iconic Tournee du Chat Noir poster presides above, opposite Lautrec's three posters of Aristide Bruant on the fourth wall.

The newly widespread fame of the cabaret stars of the period is apparent in the diversity of media in which they were depicted. Yvette Guilbert, slightly sinister in Lautrec's depictions, seems much more harmless as seen by others who drew, painted and sculpted portraits of her. Loie Fuller was the subject of a series of sculptures by Carabin, as well as other mementos, and a film of her dancing is shown above fourteen variations (borrowed from ten collections) of Lautrec's ethereal lithograph, each printed in a unique colour combination.

'The Circus' concludes the exhibition with the series of drawings made by Lautrec when he was interned in 1899 to prove to the doctors that he was compos mentis. Exquisitely drawn but exceedingly strange, they are psychologically far removed from the spectacle of Montmartre.

It is fortunate for the exhibition that several multi-figure compositions by Lautrec belong to the organising museums, for the loan of some other important paintings by the master was not forthcoming. The Museum of Modern Art's La Goulue Entering the Moulin Rouge is missed here, as are Philadelphia's Rehearsal of the New Girls at the Moulin Rouge and Albi's Salon of the Rue des Moulins, but these works are illustrated in the catalogue. The Musee d'Orsay's two very large decorative paintings made for the booth of La Goulue did not travel even to London in 1991.

The catalogue has three informative main essays - on decadence in fin-de-siecle Paris, the 'social menagerie' of Montmartre, and Lautrec and the culture of celebrity. Judicious editing could have avoided certain duplications. Some of Cate's earlier catalogues give more readable accounts than his densely packed survey here. More essays follow, one for each section mentioned above, and everything is lavishly illustrated. With some works interspersed in texts, others following them, and the now standard use of full-page details, sometimes grotesquely enlarged, to separate sections, it becomes difficult to find any single reproduction. It is tricky at first to differentiate between reproductions of works actually included in the exhibition and those not exhibited; the use of orange versus black caption numbers denotes this--but the note of explanation to the reader is on, of all places, the copyright page, with some other information on illustrations.

Works are numbered according to their place in the narrative of the essays. Thus finding Lautrec's works from the numerically arranged checklist is difficult, though they are indexed by title. All essays are meticulously annotated, but this is not the publication to consult on matters of provenance or exhibition history; major artists' catalogue raisonne numbers are given, but for other works details are minimal. Some information useful to the viewer was presented only on the walls of the exhibition. The concise artists' biographies are a useful feature, however. Misprints here and there, especially in French (sometimes correct in the exhibition labels), and a Degas monotype (no. 232) printed in reverse indicate the stress of producing at speed a publication on this scale.

'Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre' is at the Art Institute of Chicago from 16 July to 10 October. It was at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, PC, from 20 March to 12 June. The catalogue, by Richard Thomson, et al., is published in association with Princeton University Press, ISBN 0 691 12337 3 (cloth), $60.

Yonna Yapou was curator of paintings at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, for fifteen years.
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Author:Yapou, Yonna
Publication:Apollo
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Jul 1, 2005
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