Café and Cabaret: Toulouse-Lautrec’s Paris & Albrecht Dürer: Virtuoso Printmaker

05_Aristide Bruant in his CabaretCafé and Cabaret: Toulouse-Lautrec’s Paris

Now through August 8, 2010

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Paris nightlife, with its absinthe-fueled cast of characters, dingy cabarets, and plethora of performers and artists, was not simply the backdrop for Henri Toulouse-Lautrec’s lithographs—it was the main event.

In the new print show at the Museum of Fine Arts, Café and Cabaret: Toulouse-Lautrec’s Paris, the dancers, artists, writers, and café owners of Montmartre (the Parisian neighborhood where Toulouse-Lautrec lived and worked) take center stage in his posters. His work is joined by a variety of prints, paintings, and other posters by his contemporaries such as Jean-Émile Laboureur, Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen, Edouard Vuillard, and others.

Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864-1901) depicted club owner Aristide Bruant in Aristide Bruant in his Cabaret (1893). Bruant looks slyly over his shoulder from under a broad hat, wrapped in a large black cape and red scarf—his typical accoutrements. The poster is a lithograph in its near-finished state as a color proof, before letters were applied in the production process. The work bookends the exhibition, along with Steinlen’s Collection of the Chat Noir (1898), each at one end of the exhibit space. Steinlen’s poster brims with words, an advertisement for the sale of the collection of Rodolphe Salis, the owner of the cabaret the Chat Noir. Like Toulouse-Lautrec, Steinlen uses bold, saturated colors and thick, defined lines to illustrate his figures (a large black cat in particular). Between the striking pair, Café and Cabaret invites visitors to explore both the multifaceted nightlife of Montmartre and the medium of the lithograph.

As a regular customer of the clubs and cafés, Toulouse-Lautrec’s access to and careful study of the people who frequented the same places allowed Toulouse-Lautrec to illustrate them in intimate ways.

The details he observed appear in the posters, from the signature long black gloves helping to identify Yvette Guilbert, a singer he placed in the background of Divan Japonais (1893), to the scrunched features and flowing gown typical of May Milton, performer, affectionately portrayed in a poster from 1895, which bears her name as its title.

In addition to these lively, intimate portraits of his friends, elements of Parisian social issues work their way into Toulouse-Lautrec’s images.

There are depictions of class: artists and aristocrats mix and mingle. In A Gala at the Moulin Rouge (1893), the bourgeois and the bohemian alike dance at the Moulin Rouge nightclub in a colorful, vibrant landscape of individuals.

Laboureur depicts a similar scene in The Bal Bullier Dance Hall (1898) but the nature of the black and white woodcut has an equalizing effect on the image, blurring the bodies and faces, which both obscures the identities of the dancers and abstracts their physical forms.

The poster as an art form, gained popularity at the end of the 19th century, especially in Paris where posters by Toulouse-Lautrec covered walls and buildings throughout the city. By bringing these works together, the exhibition serves to highlight the artist’s keen observation skills and his attraction to the strange and beautiful world of Montmartre. When compared with works by his contemporaries, the exhibition highlights the unique way in which Toulouse-Lautrec used the poster format. The nature of the lithograph allowed Toulouse-Lautrec to emphasize line and color, providing the artist with a simplified, bold new way of rendering figures.

The museum’s Department of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs also opened an exhibition of the engravings, woodcuts, and etchings of Albrecht Dürer this past weekend as well: Albrecht Dürer: Virtuoso Printmaker. The show features some of Dürer’s most well known wood cuts. According to Clifford Ackley, curator of the department and the exhibition, both Toulouse-Lautrec and Dürer were great observers of the world around them. Where Toulouse-Lautrec used color to express character and mood, Dürer used line and contrast to convey depth and emotion. The two shows serve as a complementary pair and a juxtaposition of technique.

-Karaugh Brown

Albrecht Dürer: Virtuoso Printmaker is on view now through July 3, 2010.