The current exhibition at Columbus Museum of Art, “Toulouse-Lautrec and La Vie Moderne: Paris 1880-1910,” is an extensive collection of works capturing the epicenter of French art and culture at the turn of the century, or what’s referred to as “La Belle Epoque.” The goal is to highlight how artists were transforming, in both process and subject matter, and ushering in aspects of modern art that carried into the 20th century while showcasing the societal aspects that influenced this exchange.
“Paris was a breeding ground for artistic and literary movements that challenged the establishment and sought to come to terms with a complex society that was changing, becoming wealthier and even eager for entertainment as well as new, modern experiences,” stated CMA curator Dominique H. Vasseur in a press release regarding the exhibit.
The exhibit features more than 185 works: paintings, watercolors, drawings, lithographs, posters as well as cabaret puppets, programs and archival and ephemera materials from Parisian theaters, circuses and concerts. Appropriately looming over the varied and splendid works is the art of one man, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Toulouse-Lautrec was a well-respected painter who removed himself from the formal, academic art world and his aristocratic heritage, and moved to Montmartre, a northern area of Paris. Rather than showing in the Salons or being some sort of “high” artist, Toulouse-Lautrec embraced the bohemian lifestyle in Montmartre, an area as known for entertainment and nightlife and home to criminals and society’s castoffs.
“There were lots of thieves and prostitutes — that suited [Toulouse-Lautrec] just fine — and he actually lived in brothels. He went to the bars and was a frequent visitor at the Moulin Rouge [and] became part of the fiber of the entertainment world,” Vasseur said during a media tour at the museum last week.
Toulouse-Lautrec probably felt more comfortable in Montmartre with the so-called pariahs because he was treated like one himself. The son of first cousins, Toulouse-Lautrec is believed to have suffered from several health conditions, but his biggest physical ailment developed from breaking both his legs as a teenager. As a result, Toulouse-Lautrec stood only five feet tall, having the torso of an adult and the legs of a child. As you can imagine, late 19th century Parisian high society was scoffingly unkind.
Once in Montmartre, Toulouse-Lautrec fell in love with the nightlife, especially places like the Moulin Rouge (where he had a reserved table), and often painted subjects that were acquaintances. The iconic “Moulin Rouge — La Goulue” poster is a shining example, illustrating two frequenters of the nightclub dancing vivaciously. “Queen of Joy” gives a censurable look at how high society folks approached the Montmartre nightlife, which usually meant slumming it with the artists and writers while enjoying “mistresses.”
“He was known in the city and was on the cutting-edge art scene,” Vasseur said. “He rarely ever just depicts something. Many of these people have identities.”
While the celebrated Toulouse-Lautrec’s name is in the exhibition’s title, and a number of his works (both iconic and lesser-known) are present, there’s an effort to explore artists who weren’t as famous. These names may not have the cache of a Toulouse-Lautrec — or Post-Impressionists Georges Seurat, Paul Gauguin or Vincent Van Gogh — but they were just as much “a fiber” of the culture.
“What I think is really wonderful about the exhibition is there are very few shows of this sort that examine the art in Paris [during] this period of 30 years,” Vasseur said. “We think about the really big names … [but] you tend to forget there were all these other artists who were friends with them, studied and collaborated with them and who had lives and successful careers, and their own issues.”
The four-room exhibition bounces from various aspects of culture in turn-of-the-century Paris. Images representing the exoticism and excitement of the wildly popular circuses and theaters share space with more pensive works of children, and even “a charming selection of nudes.”
“You can’t have French art from this time period and not have nudes. It’s obligatory,” Vasseur said lightheartedly.
The works are varied, but with a common theme: modernity.
“It was all about modernity; about engagement of the moment,” Vassuer said. “It’s not about thinking ahead so much, as enjoying life right now.”
A portion of the exhibit, mainly the symbolist works by a group called the Nabis, countered that in-the-moment sentimentality. These works, in the final room, work as the antithesis of “La Vie Modern.” Some are religious-influenced; others use symbols to ponder human existence. All fall in line with the exhibit’s aesthetic focus.
“They felt this fixation on how things looked, or how much fun life was, is not what art should be. Although they didn’t want to go back to becoming strictly academic artists. In many ways they used the essence of modernism, but in a different way,” Vasseur said.
Photos by Meghan Ralston