French posters from Chéret to Toulouse-Lautrec
27 June – 18 October 1998
introduction | art with a message
Henri de Toulouse–Lautrec 'La revue blanche [The white revue] [Poster: La revue blanche]' 1895 colour lithographic poster Collection of the National Gallery of Australia enlarge
Poster art was not simply advertising, it was also art with a message. The artist Théophile Steinlen, for example, was inspired by the social realism of author Emile Zola, and he allied himself and his art with the downtrodden. Zola's influential novel, L'Assommoir - which told the story of city life, poverty, and the decline into alcoholism and prostitution - was adapted for the stage in 1900. Steinlen designed a poster for this production, showing the figures of the protagonists, Gervaise and Coupeau.
Steinlen's massive masterpiece of poster-making, La rue: Affiches Charles Verneau (The street: Charles Verneau Posters) 1896, also addresses the theme of city life, not on the grand boulevards but in a backstreet of Montmartre. La rue explores the diversity of the capital's populace, depicting a variety social types. In this he follows in the footsteps of the great writer Balzac and caricaturist Daumier, both prominent in France earlier in the century.
As posters became bolder and more dramatic, there was a concurrent realisation that they could convey political messages to great effect. The socialist and activist Marguerite Durand commissioned Clémentine-Hélène Dufau to design a poster for the influential feminist journal La fronde (The sling), published in Paris from 1897. In her poster Dufau depicts women of means and education standing next to their less fortunate counterparts; one points in the direction of the Sorbonne, making the point that education offers a means of improvement.
As more artists became involved in poster-making, this medium of mass communication began to treat more personal subjects. Pierre Bonnard strove to make his art relevant to his times and was keen for it to have practical application. He belonged to the Nabis, an avant-garde brotherhood who wanted to extend their ideas on art to all facets of life, valuing the decorative arts, and print and postermaking as well as painting. According to Bonnard, artists of his generation `always sought to link art with life'. Bonnard was drawn to postermaking, and it was towards the end of March 1891 that his first poster, France-Champagne was pasted up in the streets of Paris. The impact was immediate and its success helped to propel Bonnard to prominence in the art world.
Bonnard and the other Nabis had particularly close ties with a French journal, La revue blanche. The driving force behind the publication was Thadée Natanson, a young intellectual who sought to become a figure of consequence in the French art world. In 1984 Bonnard was commissioned by Natanson to design a poster to advertise La revue blanche. The resulting poster featured Misia Natanson, a gifted pianist who was also the wife of Thadée. In this work, Bonnard continued his radical experiments in poster design: this intimate portrait of a vivacious woman combines a masterful use of caricature - a genre then undergoing a revival - with dramatic flattened space and sombre colouring.
Henri de Toulouse–Lautrec 'La Passagère du 54 - Promenade en yacht [Passenger from (cabin) 54 - On a cruise] [Poster: La Passagere du 54 ou Promenade en Yacht [The passenger of cabin 54 - On a cruise]]' 1896 National Gallery of Australia Purchased with the assistance of Orde Poynton Esq. CMG 1992 enlarge
Bonnard's poster France-Champagne is generally credited as the catalyst for Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's embrace of postermaking. Toulouse-Lautrec was a superb draughtsman who came to value postermaking and printmaking on a par with painting. He revelled in his subjects - the dance halls, bars, theatres racetracks and brothels - and executed his posters with an acute and penetrating observation that rivalled painted portraits of the day.
One of Toulouse-Lautrec's favourite subjects was the dancer Jane Avril, who made her name at the Moulin Rouge, a dance hall frequented by the artist. Avril appears in a large poster of 1893, performing at the café-concert known as the Jardin de Paris (Garden of Paris). Her `serpentine' movements and high kicking can-can were well suited to Lautrec's sinuous lines. Her morbid character also appealed to the artist's dark disposition.
Toulouse-Lautrec did not simply depict the night life and low life of Paris. Passenger from cabin no. 54, for example, is quite personal in tone. It is based on the artist's reminiscences of a voyage he made from Le Havre to Lisbon during which he was so enamoured of another passenger that he failed to disembark at his destination. This poster reveals the artist's debt to Japanese art, as evidenced by his use of strong lines, flat colours, beautiful patterning and a cropped composition. It is also indicative of the subtle colour that could be achieved in lithographic postermaking using spatter lithography - a technique whereby a midtonal range was created with a series of tiny dots.
A poster such as Passenger from cabin no. 54 indicates just how far the poster had progressed as an art form in just a few decades. Once destined only for the street, posters became sought-after for the home, as artists of the calibre of Toulouse-Lautrec brought the qualities of great intimacy to an art of the mass media.
Senior Curator, International Prints, Drawings and Illustrated Books
National Gallery of Australia