A new exhibition at Victoria Art Gallery brings to life the streets of Montmartre in its bohemian heyday. Emma Clegg asks Jon Benington about Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and the other artists who adopted the colour lithograph in fin-de siècle Paris

At one time Montmartre was a small village in the open countryside with 45 windmills. In the latter part of the 19th century the winding streets of the region were still dotted with working windmills – as seen by Van Gogh, Renoir, Picasso and Toulouse-Lautrec – and would have retained a strong country atmosphere. While bourgeois central Paris had been developed with grand walkways and formal parks under Napoleon III, Montmartre itself had been annexed in the same period, which had turned it into a bohemian centre and an affordable haven for avant-garde artists.

The artistic tale of Montmartre had its roots in a young Pierre Bonnard, who in 1889 designed a colour lithographic poster advertising France-Champagne, with the posters pasted up around Paris in 1891. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec saw the poster, and resolved to use colour lithography to design posters of his own.

Bonnard was part of the Nabis group (from the Hebrew for prophet), and himself designated as the Japanese Nabi, a fin-de-siècle, post-Impressionist group that included Vuillard, Denis, Serusier and Vallotton, and drew heavily from the stylised designs and exaggerated perspectives of Japanese woodblock prints. “On seeing the Bonnard print, Toulouse-Lautrec would have made all those connections,” explains Jon Benington, Victoria Art Gallery’s manager.

The new exhibition at Victoria Art Gallery, Toulouse-Lautrec and the Masters of Montmartre, from 15 February – 26 May, includes this early Bonnard poster. “This was what brought Bonnard to popular attention,” Jon explains. “It is the only work by Bonnard in the show. It’s not very big, but it’s the source of what came later.” The revolutionary potential of colour lithography for publicity posters opened up a fruitful collaboration between commercial products and events and the avant-garde artists based in the region. The exhibition – with the prints on loan from the Musée d’Ixelles in Brussels – collects together the ‘street art’ of the era, showcasing more than 80 printed posters by Toulouse-Lautrec, Mucha, Steinlen, Chéret, Grasset and Bonnard.

Champagne Ruinart

“This is a unique period where commerce harnessed such cutting-edge artists and they did that partly because they were cheap to hire.” says Jon. “The posters were reaching 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.”

Lautrec 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, the son of Comte Alfonse Charles de Toulouse Lautrec-Monfa and Adèle Tapié de Céleyran, but he made Montmartre his home and would have identified with the eccentric characters that were part of Paris’ underclass.

This connection would have been immediate and genuine because he himself felt an outsider because of his stunted growth, most likely caused by genetic inbreeding. “So many of these performers had come from troubled backgrounds,” says Jon. The mother of Jane Avril – a dancer and one of Lautrec’s regular models – was a prostitute and encouraged Jane at a young age to embark on the same profession. She ran away and was later incarcerated in the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital as a result of a nervous disorder – she first started dancing there when patients performed for the hospital’s upper class visitors.

The show includes details of the back stories of the artists and performers. “These are images created for promotion and to sell brands. So that’s the gloss, but scratch the surface and there is this amazing backstory,” says Jon. Lautrec’s Moulin Rouge, La Goulou depicts one of the performers he often portrayed and who he knew well. “La Goulou – meaning ‘glutton’ – was one of the headlining stars of the Moulin Rouge. She earned that nickname because as she danced past the patrons, she would swipe their drinks and down them,” says Jon. This image also depicts Valentin le Désossé, with his characteristic elongated silhouette, who used to dance the quadrille with La Goulou.

“Lautrec’s prints and posters show his creativity, his gift for colour and design, and his sheer draughtsmanship and brilliance. He loved to work directly in the print shop, cheek by jowl with the printers, and imbibe their secret ways and techniques. He was inventive and came up with new techniques, like blowing the ink onto the surface of the lithographic stone, a splatter technique called crachis,” explains Jon.

Lautrec’s constant ill health and addiction to alcohol – he started drinking to manage the pain of his condition – and the fact that he died at 36, still resulted in a prolific artistic output of 1,000 paintings, 5,000 drawings and 360 prints and posters. The show has 31 Lautrecs and 52 posters by other artists, notably French artist Jules Chéret, Czech artist Alfonse Mucha and Swiss-born Théophile Steinlen.

The exhibition will be mounted on yellow walls, with 83 artworks mounted closely in two tiers, and aims to mimic the crowded billboard character of the posters on the streets of Montmartre. “The exhibition will be true to the nature of how the posters would originally have been displayed. They wouldn’t have had frames on them and glass in front of them, but they are fragile, vulnerable things now, and rare, because so many did just get destroyed and torn down,” says Jon.

The colour lithographic technique was new, and at that time the technology didn’t allow the printing of paper on a large scale, so the larger posters were formed with multiple sheets jigsawed together. Because the majority of the posters were displayed on the streets of Montmartre, they are not in pristine condition. “They are all a little bit worn at the edges, but that’s part of the charm,” says Jon.

“I don’t want people to think they are only posters, that they are multiples and not special. That’s not true – they are really special, and amazing survivors. Because they were never intended to last more than a few months. And here they are 120 years later.”

Toulouse-Lautrec and the Masters of Montmartre is at Victoria Art Gallery, from 15 February – 26 May; victoriagal.org.uk
Victoria Art Gallery is part of Bath & North East Somerset Council