Paris at the end of the 19th century was known as the ‘city of pleasure’ famed for its cabarets, cafés and dance halls. Montmartre was particularly full of these spots, which were also considered bohemian and intellectual. It is there where Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec lived, worked and socialised.
The exhibition provides a good insight into what inspired this particular part of Toulouse-Lautrec’s art – pin-up posters. His era was that of technical change, which is reflected in his graphic work. He explored the creative effects of the new technique of colour lithography and used it to promote the celebrities of Montmartre.
The exhibition not only focuses on the art of Toulouse-Lautrec but also gives visitors a lot of context. Works of artists such as Jules Cheret, Thèophile-Alexandre Steinlen, Honoré Daumier, who were sources of great inspiration for Toulouse-Lautrec, are also present at the exhibition. As well as art pieces themselves, the exhibition incorporates audio and video showpieces, which helps to better imagine and even feel the world of entertainment in which Toulouse-Lautrec lived.
Almost all displayed works are done in the technique of lithography, which was new at the time. It was a way of printing art on paper with the use of polished stones.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was born in southern France in an aristocratic family and moved to Paris with his mother in 1872. As his parents were first cousins, he inherited a rare bone disorder. In his early teens, he broke both legs, which failed to heal properly and grow due to the disorder. Consequently, he remained very short throughout his life – only 1,42 m – but with an adult-sized torso.
He is among the post-impressionists and is widely known for his depictions of the working class, particularly women who worked in brothels. Due to his physical disability Toulouse-Lautrec was “cut off from his kind” and “found an affinity between his own condition and the moral penury of the prostitute”, frequenting brothels and always carrying alcohol with him.
However, the exhibition focuses on the art that actually brought him fame. The environment in which Toulouse-Lautrec put himself provided great inspiration for commercial posters. Lautrec was concerned with making a public impact and found that printed posters were a great way to reach the audience. He and his fellow artists would get commissions from the celebrities of Montmartre, such as Jane Avril, Yvette Guilbert, Artistide Bruant and Loïe Fuller. It was these commissioned posters that added his own name to the list of the mentioned celebrities of Montmartre.
The exhibition does not immerse visitors into the atmosphere of Montmartre of the era, but rather provides them with good historical knowledge and understanding of it and particularly how it inspired and influenced Toulouse-Lautrec and his contemporaries.
Scottish National Gallery
Until January 2019
Photograph: Natalie Nosenko