You don’t need to be much of a psychologist to understand the trajectory of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Born to aristocratic first cousins, in a family never shy of consanguinity, he was blighted by congenital deformities and weaknesses. When his brittle legs broke in his teenage years, they stopped growing altogether, leaving the adult Lautrec tiny as well as weird-looking, with his heavy lips and thick-lidded eyes.
Fortunately, Montmartre was waiting for him, offering a boozy and bosomy refuge from his peculiar family and woeful self-regard. In the dance halls of the capital, Lautrec found his people, and in his art they found themselves. His paintings tell the story best, all those fleshy whores lying in bed or lining up for medical examinations. Elsewhere, twisty-faced café patrons and performers are illuminated by a new, acidic, electric glare. But it is Lautrec’s posters, and their famous subjects, that take centre-stage in this exhibition.
Fin-de-siècle Paris was a fine time to be a proto-celebrity. An expanding entertainment industry had allied itself with innovative printmaking techniques and visionary artists, plastering seductive posters across the streets and making a generation of performers fabulously famous. Into this mix stepped Lautrec, lord of the blank space and the bold line, to become the belle époque’s most sought-after poster designer.
He wasn’t the first, though. The daddy was Jules Chéret, the original master of poster lithography, who preceded Lautrec by decades and was receiving the Légion d’honneur in 1890 while his successor was getting whacked on absinthe and contracting syphilis down the brothel. Chéret’s work kicked like a cancan dancer, his radical use of large-scale, colourful pictures and hand-drawn wording leaping out from the reams of letterpress posters that then bedecked the streets. His posters had an eye-catching vim that others, including the impeccable stylist Alexandre Steinlen, would embrace and run away with.
Where Lautrec exceeds these artists is in his characterisation. Chéret’s posters were lively, effective adverts, but there was no individuality in his dancers, no back story, delight or despair evident at the edges. Lautrec, all too aware of the often seedy reality behind these images, made his poster boys and girls breathe and sneer.
Many of the works on display here are remarkably familiar. I have had copies of several on my walls; you probably have too. But it is still quite something to see them all together as original, full-size prints, supplemented by biographical expositions of the central characters.
It’s easy, these days, to overlook the fame and significance of Jane Avril, Yvette Guilbert or Aristide Bruant, but they were the celebrities of their age, Third Republic Lady Gagas, as influential as any YouTuber. Self-promotion, then as now, was essential, but while today’s celebs have social media and Strictly, the icons of the dance halls had to be seen on street posters and in the collectable print editions issued by publishers with an eye for the financial benefits of celebrity endorsement.
Stars would collaborate with chosen artists to produce limited-edition folios, such as the one shown here featuring Yvette Guilbert, which would be pounced upon by a public hungry for printmaking. When new runs of posters hit the streets, fans were known to slip out in the night to ease them off the walls. Posters were big news and big business — for performers, impresarios, publishers and artists alike.
Lautrec produced the most arresting designs of the era while frequently making the stars look appalling. The Yvette Guilbert of those print editions is a sort of goose-woman, with a too-long neck, a tight slit of a mouth and empty eyes. It is testament to the celebrity status of Lautrec himself that the stars kept coming back for more.
The first poster Lautrec made for the Moulin Rouge, which dominates this show in all its two-metre-high glory, sets the tone for them all. He compresses the stage into three layers of silhouette, a nod to the stylistic simplicity of Japanese ukiyo-e printmaking. But, by making her the lightest element, he draws the eye to the dancer, La Goulue (the Glutton, so called because of her fondness for downing everyone else’s drinks), who is in mostly cancan dress. Behind her lurch the shadow-play figures of a crowd and in the foreground a strange, etiolated man in a top hat dances. This is Valentin le désossée (the boneless), a performer as famous as the Glutton but, as portrayed here, he might as well be an appraising bourgeois punter.
It’s all a long way from Chéret’s wholesome good cheer but, for a while anyway, it made Lautrec happier than usual, and it made others rich and famous. And, more than 100 years later, we’re still sticking the posters on our walls and talking about Guilbert and La Goulue. Will Gaga last as long?