December 20, 2014

"Toulouse-Lautrec and La Vie Moderne" in Palm Beach

After the whirlwind of Art Basel Miami Beach and its related fairs and events, I was happy to take a little break from the Modern and Contemporary scene and drive up to Palm Beach where a new exhibition had just opened at The Society of the Four Arts.  "Toulouse-Lautrec and La Vie Moderne: Paris 1880-1910" is a wonderful look at Paris in its heyday - the thirty year period around the turn-of-the-century when to be considered "Parisian" was the ultimate compliment.

Regular readers of my blog will think I'm repeating myself what with the blog posts "Paris 1900 - La Ville Spectacle" in June and "The Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec @ MoMA" in August (and it's true, it is my favorite period) but this exhibition is a little different.  Drawn primarily from a private collection in The Netherlands with a few important museum loans, this traveling show presents 185 drawings, watercolors, paintings, books, posters, programs and zinc shadow puppets that taken together give a comprehensive view of the arts at that time.

While the prolific painter and illustrator Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is the headliner of this exhibition, it is really a tribute to the many lesser known artists who collectively set the tone of la Belle Epoque.  This generation furthered the artistic liberation begun by the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist schools to reflect the modernity of the new century.  Movements such as Symbolism, Naturalism, The Incoherents, and The Nabis existed to capture the up-to-the-minute modernity of Paris at that time.  It was an era of confidence and optimism, of new inventions and new societal norms, of prosperity and liberty - and all of this demanded a fresh approach to art.

At this time Paris was the cultural center of the universe and Montmartre was the hub.  Here, in this hilly village on the northern edge of the city, artists, writers and entertainers came together to push their creative limits to the max.  Scenes of everyday life by Mary Cassatt, Charles Maurin and Georges Lemmen, and landscapes by Henri Rivière, Charles Lacoste and Charles Guilloux (see below) explored traditional subject matter with fresh eyes.

"The Notre Dame Cathedral Seen from the Riverbank", c. 1894

"Parisianism" was also explored through the world of entertainment as cabarets, circuses and café concerts became part of modern life.  While actors and performers were still considered somewhat déclassé, the lure of these types of live spectacles was irresistible to many otherwise "respectable" citizens.  Naturally, any forward-thinking artist wanted to participate as well and the work of Louis Abel Truchet, Jacques Villon, Louis Legrand (see below), among many others, is well represented.

"Bar Scene: Portrait of Prince K.", 1899        

The "Nabis" (the term means "prophet" in Hebrew and Arabic) was a group of young, avant-garde artists who sought to revitalize painting, as "prophets" of Modern Art, in fin-de-siècle Paris.  Characterized by flat planes and colors, the most well known members of the school include Maurice Denis, Paul Ranson and Henri Ibels (see below). 

"Mère Moderne", 1893

The Symbolists were another artistic group who converged around this time but they were definitely not avant-garde.  In fact they represented a reaction against realism as they strove to incorporate spiritualism, or the supernatural, into their imagery.  Artists like Fernand Khnopff and Leon Spilliaert, both Belgian, are prime examples of this particular style.

The final section of this show focuses on portraiture and here we find depictions of some of the great characters of the day.  My favorite example from the exhibition is an 1893 aquatint by Charles Maurin of the man of the hour himself, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec: 

Contrary to historical examples of portraiture, these are realistic depictions of people, warts and all, rendered in lifelike situations.  It was a fundamental departure from the glorified portrayals of men and women traditionally commissioned in the past, and a prime example of the radical ideology of turn-of-the-century Paris.

If you can't make it to Palm Beach before January 11, 2015 do not fear!  "Toulouse-Lautrec and La Vie Moderne" will be traveling to Sacramento, CA, Arlington, TX and Baton Rouge, LA, before heading back to Europe at the end of next year!

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