Exhibition at Victoria Art Gallery: ‘Toulouse-Lautrec and the Masters of Montmartre’

Image: Tournée du chat noir by Théophile Steinlen

An exhibition at Victoria Art Gallery brings to life the streets of Montmartre in its bohemian heyday. The gallery has seen the exhibits before, but now it can share them properly with the city. Emma Clegg talks to the curator, Katharine Wall.

Four years ago there was an exhibition at Victoria Art Gallery in Bath called Toulouse-Lautrec: the Masters of Montmartre. It opened on 15 February 2020, but a few weeks later everything shut down, and everyone was forced to close their doors and opt out of the wider world. Exhibition spaces could then only be accessed digitally.

The tragedy was that this exhibition, allowing visitors to immerse themselves in the sights and gaiety of 19th-century Paris, had been guaranteed to draw in the crowds, to enchant, engage and enrapture both the casual passer-by and the connoisseur. Prints such as Chéret’s Chat Noir, Toulouse-Lautrec’s La Goulue doing the can can or his depictions of Aristide Brouant with his red scarf and black cape are, after all, iconic images of the Belle Époque in Paris.

The good news is that the exhibition returns to the Victoria Art Gallery this month, and it boasts more prints on its walls than before. It features iconic French posters from the 1880s and 1890s, by the best and most innovative artists of the era, famously Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, but also artists such as Théophile Steinlen, Jules Chéret, Alphonse Mucha and Henri-Gabriel Ibels. These are not only wonderful works of art, they give a fascinating insight into life in fin-de-siècle France.

Paris was Europe’s most fashionable and exciting capital in the late 19th century, known for its nightlife, theatre, art and music. Thousands of people flocked there to marvel at the 1889 International Exposition, which showcased French products, industry and culture, and the exuberant, creative anarchic spirit of the time was reflected in the posters pasted across the city’s billboards.

These are not only wonderful works of art, they give a fascinating insight into life in fin-de-siècle Paris”

Katharine Wall has curated the new exhibition and her priority was to squeeze in as many as she could. “We had to put quite a few in storage before, so I’ve done everything I can to fit in as many as we can.”

Katharine improved her French during lockdown and this has been invaluable. “I’ve discovered that if you can work out every single word in the posters you uncover a lot more about the context”, she says.

The typography is a defining part of many of the posters. Take Steinlen’s Chat Noir: “The Chat Noir cabaret, set up in 1881, was a meeting place for intellectuals and artists. Like-minded people gathered there to exchange ideas, argue and debate whilst enjoying wine and entertainment. But if you actually read the words, it is a poster for the Chat Noir on tour. It’s also not a real cat, because the Chat Noir offered shadow puppet shows, so the cat you can see here is in fact a shadow puppet.”

Jules Chéret; Moulin Rouge

The explosion of posters in this era was a product of the mid-19th century innovation in printing technology, which was capable of reproducing brightly coloured, large images in enormous quantities as lithographs. The artists of the time enjoyed using the new technology to create designs to be pasted up on billboards nationwide.

The posters also reflect the zeitgeist of the era. “These posters were produced by the post-war generation, by young people wanting to indulge in hedonism to escape the misery and destruction their parents experienced when Paris was badly affected by the Franco-Prussian War. The Paris posters of the 1890s were about celebrating life, culture, fun and consumerism, and reflect France at the end of the 19th century, after everything the country had been through”, says Katharine.

The posters reached out to the masses and some of them were produced in the thousands. It was advantageous not just for the performers – some of them went to the artists and commissioned them to handle their promotions, like Sarah Bernhardt with Alfonse Mucha – but it was beneficial for the artists, too, and it’s what made Toulouse-Lautrec’s name.

Toulouse-Lautrec had based himself in Montmartre, living closely among the prostitutes and performers who he drew and painted in the area’s dance halls, cabarets and brothels. He himself was high born, but he made Montmartre his home and would have identified with the eccentric characters that were part of Paris’ underclass.

A number of the posters are distinctively high and narrow. This is because they were designed to be lifesize, explains Katharine.

Moulin Rouge – La Goulue, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

“They were produced using lithographs, and the tall ones had to be produced using two stones, so two prints were joined together, but they were not perfect.” Sure enough when you look at the prints, you can easily detect these misalignments. There is almost no attempt to hide the break lines: “They are not intended as precious artworks, or to last very long, as they were simply pasted on the billboards, and are rather a colourful, expressive celebration of the creative opportunities over any apparent limitations”, says Katharine.

One innovation for this exhibition is the use of the Bloomberg App. Katharine says, “One issue with display posters is that it’s hard to include information about them in an exhibition. So using the Bloomberg App, visitors can log in and refer to individual posters as they go around. We’ll still have general introductory panels – because we know that not everybody likes to use apps – but the app does replace the really detailed labels.”

These posters were never intended to last more than a few months, and here they are 130 years later, in the centre of Bath.

Toulouse-Lautrec and the Masters of Montmartre, Victoria Art Gallery, 26 April – 29 September, open Tuesday – Sunday, 10.30am-5pm. victoriagal.org.uk