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Café and Cabaret: Toulouse-Lautrec’s Paris

November 21, 2009 – August 8, 2010

Museum of Fine Arts

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec produced intimate perspectives into the decadent lifestyle of early 20th-century Paris. While we look back upon his work as modern and fashionable, his images had been considered provocative amongst his peers.

If you haven’t made it over to the Museum of Fine Arts yet, you should go very soon; the exhibit on Toulouse-Lautrec’s Paris is a short and sweet take on everyday life in the fashion capital of the late nineteenth-century. Besides, a trip like this takes less than two hours out of your day. I’ve clocked it.

Now perhaps “short and sweet” is not the best way to describe this exhibit. The exhibition as a whole is refreshingly concise, a plus for casual museum-goers. It contains a nice sampling of Toulouse-Lautrec’s more famous works, as well as those of his contemporaries. (There is Theophile-Alexandre Steinlen’s iconic poster Collection of the Chat Noir, and even Picasso has managed to claim space for a small painting, Stuffed Shirts (Les Pastrons), with a distinctly turn-of-the-century Parisian flavor.)

As for this Parisian flavor, I admit that my reference to fashion may incorrectly suggest that the artwork immediately embodies this characteristic. While fashion may come with glamour, the two are very distinct entities, and glamour does not automatically overlap fashion.

For example, it may not have been fashionable to be glamorous in Paris during the turn of the century, but that is the kind of glamour that might be fashionable today. In the airy, line-driven prints of the time we have posters to hang on kitchen walls as an offhand tribute to Art Nouveau and La Belle Epoque. “It’s bohemian”, we say, “and therefore glamorous.” Steinlen’s advertisement, Yvette Guilbert At the Ambassadeurs Café Concert, presents us a tall, slim figure with long black gloves: glamorous, yes, but as a public performer, hardly the kind of woman who would be able to mingle in fashionable company respectably.

Only a few faint movements of Toulouse-Lautrec’s pencil expose the mildly seedy activities of Paris’s arts crowd, hidden beneath the glamorous façade. His famous posters — Aristide Bruant in his Cabaret, for one — cannot be ignored, but his sketches should not be forgotten. Sketches from the theater feature couples watching plays from their boxes and celebrities performing on the stage, but Toulouse-Lautrec passes swift judgment on these subjects, capturing them in a less than ideal light. Toulouse-Lautrec, not unlike Degas, liked depicting people from the most unconventional, and sometimes less than flattering, perspectives.

In short, the artwork of Toulouse-Lautrec is a sensibility in bold lines and a challenge to do better. It is Paris.