Thursday, October 31, 2013

Review: Toulouse-Lautrec and La Vie Moderne, Paris 1880-1910


What did it mean to celebrate "la vie moderne" at the end of 19th century Paris? Toulouse-Lautrec and La Vie Moderne, which accompanies a traveling exhibition of the same name, seeks to explore the lives and works of numerous avant-garde artists who lived, worked and breathed the fin de si├Ęcle era.

The culture in Paris at the end of the 19th century seemed almost designed to host the vast artistic explorations, interpretations and experimentation that the city's many artists were producing at the time. Some of the most popular subjects during this 30 year period were of the city's artistic underside: its cabarets, circuses, even brothels; intimate scenes, such as domestic life or private moments, were also commonplace.  

Toulouse-Lautrec and La Vie Moderne explores the artists, and their work, who re-imagined life in painting, sculpture and other ephemera in a fresh, modern way at the edge of the new century. The scope of the book is quite vast and includes substantial sections on Realism/Naturalism, Entertainment and Performance, Symbolism/Abstraction and Portraits. There are also some sub-categories in the larger sections, such as Daily Life, Landscapes and Toulouse-Lautrec. Each section features reproductions of artwork, with most of the images reproduced in larger sized and accompanied by biographical and analytical information. The information is written clearly and is accessible for general readers in addition to those with an interest or background in art history.

image: Lucie Cousturier at the Piano by Maximilien Luce
credit: my photograph

One of the paintings that immediately caught my eye while reading was Lucie Cousturier at the Piano by Maximilien Luce. This painting of an intimate daily scene, completed around 1905, is a striking portrait that speaks in color. The woman in the portrait was not just a random art model, but a woman known in the Neo-Impressionist circles of Paris. In addition to her work arranging art exhibitions, she produced her own artwork, mostly landscapes and still life paintings. She was also an accomplished art historian and published several studies on some of her prolific contemporary painters, such as Seurat, Signac and Henri-Edmond Cross.

Maximilien Luce, the artist, was a close friend of Lucie and painted her more than once. This particular portrait of her stands out because of its broad, impressive use of color. Everything from her clothing to the walls and even to the piano itself is showcased with impressions of color using wider brush strokes to give the impression of shadows, objects and even folds in fabric. The vibrant reds, blues, greens and whites play on each other to create a colorful, stylized image of a simple, daily scene: a young woman playing the piano.

image: Le Divan Japonais by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
credit: my photograph

Of course, the highlight of the book is the thirty-page (or so) section on Toulouse-Lautrec and his work. An entire review could be written solely on this well-illustrated section! One of my favorite 'Lautrec' pieces featured in the book is Le Divan Japonais, a poster created to celebrate the famous Divan Japonais cafe/cabaret. Divan Japonais came at a time when the Japonisme style, influenced by Japanese art and aesthetics, was heavily in vogue among European artists.

Toulouse-Lautrec's poster depicts Edouard Dujardin, a symbolist writer, accompanied by dancer Jane Avril; the pair are viewing a concert performed by Yvette Guilbert, well known for her signature full-length black gloves. Toulouse-Lautrec's use of color in this poster is similar to other Japonisme-inspired pieces produced around the same time, which often feature monochromatic color schemes accented with pops of brighter colors. Another poster featured in the Toulouse-Lautrec section of the book, 'Jane Avril,' features a similar "Japanese" inspired color scheme.

These are just two of the many pieces of art featured in Toulouse-Lautrec and La Vie Moderne. I highly recommended this lavish exhibition album for anyone with an interest in 'la vie moderne,' French art history, or simply "art" itself!

[A review copy of this book was given to me by the publisher in exchange for my opinion.]