La Vie Moderne: Paris 1880-1910 (and a little bit of Toulouse-Lautrec) at the Art Gallery of Alberta

The most important thing to say about the current exhibition on the second floor of the Art Gallery of Alberta is that it is  a magnificent, overwhelming survey of the graphic arts produced in Paris in the decades around 1895.  It presents a tremendous opportunity for the student of art history.  It is a marvellous collection of beautiful art to be enjoyed for its own sake.  Art Services International has assembled a stunning collection of works and the Art Gallery of Alberta has again done a great service to Edmonton by bringing La Vie Moderne to our city.

But . . .

Everywhere the show is being marketed as somehow a Toulouse-Lautrec exhibit.  If you go to the AGA expecting a Toulouse-Lautrec show, you’ll be sadly disappointed.  Only about ten percent of the works are by Toulouse-Lautrec and most of those few are not particularly outstanding examples of his work.  Art Services International would have been wise, I think, to give the exhibition a more honest title.  The show presents the flowering of La Vie Moderne in the works of a wide range of artists working in media from lithograph, to oil, to shadow theatre.  Historically accurate or not, Toulouse-Lautrec is not shown by this exhibit to be central to the scene: he is no more than one of the many inspired artists working to show and shape the modern life in Paris.

With that out of the way . . .

I would like to comment a bit on the exhibition and some of the works and then I will say some things about the accompanying catalogue.

The Exhibition

The works are somewhat haphazardly divided by subject matter: Landscapes, Scenes of Daily Life, Cabaret Life, The Cafe-Concert, Portraits, Symbolism, and a few works depicting the Circus, and, of course, a single wall of Toulouse-Lautrec’s works.  I say “haphazardly divided” because, for example, Mucha’s absolutely monumental portrait of Sarah Bernhardt, will listed in the catalogue with the Portraits, is hung at the AGA with scenes of the Cafe-Concert.  In fact, the entire show seems to be hung in such a way as to make reference to the catalogue as difficult as possible.  If one perseveres, however, it will be found that three works, Auguste Jean Baptiste Roubille’s shadow theatre influenced “La Comedie”,  André Devambez’s amusing theatre audience character study “Une Première au Théâtre Montmartre”, and Charles Maurin’s exquisite “Jeunes filles a la charrette” are wholly absent from the show.  A disappointment.

A few works I would like to point out

Guilloux’s “The Lake” (Catalogue 10) is absolutely luminous.  A tiny jewel of a painting that is in no way done justice by the washed-out reproduction in the catalogue.

Lacoste’s “Hazy Sun” and “View of Paris” (14 & 15) also are betrayed by the catalogue reproductions. The Hazy Sun is, in fact, a hot white textured ball reaching out to the viewer over an oppressively atmospheric heat haze.  The “View of Paris” also is hazed by the summer heat and the high clouds are a line of fire in the sky.  Lacoste has put all of summer’s light and heat and weight onto cardboard with a bit of paint.

Jeanniot’s “Le Parc Monceau” (17) has done for a Paris winter what Lacoste has done for summer. Our feet are we with slush, the damp wind gets inside our coat.  The air itself seems to be rushing through le Parc Monceau, looking for a warm, dry place.

Rivière’s “Isle of the Swans” (18) is a large, magnificent pastel and crayon piece heavily influenced by Japanese graphic art.  Two women and a dog share the empty artificial island in a twilight of ochre and violet.  The formal lines of trees are bare, reflected in the huge puddle of melted snow.  Rivière has drawn a piece of great ballance and strength with great assurance.

Maurin’s “Woman Sleeping” 21 is a simply stunning piece of draughtsmanship!  One thinks to single out that right hand, they eyes, the left shoulder, but the pencil work is all perfection.  And Maurin has used his interesting vaporizer painting technique on the pillows, the coverlet, the background.  So fine!  And so sad that Maurin’s “Jeunes filles a la charrette” (20) is not on the wall at the AGA.

Carrière’s “Young Violinist” (29) is a little disturbing.  The pale child violinist seems to creep from the shadows like some sort of revenant.  Fascinating.

Lunel’s “Illusions of the Evening” (34) feels ominous.  There is more than a little of the terror/horror story illustration about the woman hurrying toward the viewer, the stiffly erect man following her and the horse-drawn cab further behind but gaining on her.  Sublimely discomfitting.

Bernard’s “Still Life with Fish” (39) is a marvelously bold collection of coarse brush strokes making a luminous and realistic still life of unreal colours.

Laugé’s “Composition of Three Flower Vases” (40) in contrast, is a meticulously controlled composition of fine, largely parallel brush strokes.  In person the brush strokes are much more subtle than in the catalogue reproduction.

And here I will mention two Toulouse-Lautrec pieces:

“Troupe de Mlle Églantine” (60b) is to be noted for two things: the rapid, minimal lines; and those black-stockinged right legs raised in dance which have come to be a symbol of Lautrec, Montmarte and fin de siècle Paris.

“La Vache enragée” (62b) again has the rapid minimal lines. This poster has a whimsy which takes away any possible horror stirred by the wealthy man’s jaundiced skull-like features or terror of the enraged cow in pursuit.  This is a cartoon, in the Saturday morning sense, and a perfect advertisment for the convention-flouting journal of the same name and for the artists’ parade called the Vachalcade.

It is fascinating to see Manet’s “Polchinelle” (66).  Here Manet shows remarkably assured drawing skill, so different from the childlike mess he so often makes of horses.

Rivière’s illustrations for “The Temptation of St. Anthony” (73.1-73.5) are fascinating and offer a hint of what the shadow plays must have been like.  And the zinc cutouts (76-81) which were used for some of the plays give a hint of what an elaborate production the plays could be.  What a fascinating thing it would be to see a shadow play somehow restaged!

Vidal’s book cover “La Vie a Montmartre” (90) is beautiful and whimsical (there’s la vache enragee again). Dancers and artists float in the sky above Paris. Life is good in Montmartre!  Again the catalogue doesn’t do justice to the work.  I particularly noticed the simply managed atmospheric perspective of the lithograph.

Legrand’s “Private Bar” (115) is a fascinating piece. I’d love to find out more about the story behind the black man and the little white girl sitting together in the Private Bar.  A small detail I found of interest is the ads for Bass Ale above the girl’s head.  Bass Ale also features prominently in Manet’s “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère”.  It is sad that Bass has vanished from our modern life.

Villon’s “From other bars” (118) is reminiscent of Degas’ “l’Absinthe”, but here the couple are gazing blankly toward and through – not at – each other.  There is only melancholy here.

Veber’s “La Cariatide” 120 is absolutely hilarious because of the expression on the Cariatide’s face as she looks down on the theatre goers with their own varied expressions from interest, to shock to disgust, to boredom and perhaps even to a few cases of narcolepsy.  Very nice.

Legrand’s Dancers (122-127) are exquisite! The dancer in 124 is strong and in control, whatever the nature of her pose. Legrand’s washes of blue and black provide a simple depth which allows the dancer’s figure to thrust forward.  The blush wash (not well reproduced in the catalogue) on chest and thigh in 127 bring the dancer to warm life.  The young redhaired dancer in 122 and 125 is marvellously alive in variations on the same pose.

Mossa’s “Salomé” 155 I found to be quite interesting because Salomé seems to be presented in a manner very similar to the no well-known Minoan snake goddess discovered by Evans in the ruins at Knossos. Evans first published his find in 1904, three years before Mossa’s “Salomé”.  Could Mossa have heard of Evans’ discovery or seen pictures of the bare-brested snake goddess?

Maxence’s “Hour of Peace” (156) is a simply breath-taking watercolour.

Chabas’ “Daydream” (157) is yet another piece not done justice in the catalogue reproduction.  The subtle greens in the sky and reflected in the water and picked up in the dress of the woman, while visible in the small photo, are simply not of the same effect as when standing before the piece in the gallery.

Guilloux’ “Belle Isle” is simply luminous in person.  The sun and its reflection leap off the canvas.  The light of this sunset (sunrise?) piece is remarkable.  His “The Waterway” 171 again does wonders with light, this time of the moon.

Ménard’s “The Temple of Corinth” (175) I found personally interesting because of it’s very limited palette and its classical subject.  What is not apparent in the catalogue reproduction is the sketchiness of the brushwork.  The temple columns are painted with a quick series of lines through which the sea and distant headland can be seen.  A fascinating piece.

Mucha’s portrait of Sarah Bernhardt (186) I’ve already mentioned.  It is a glorious piece of work.

A few notes on the Catalogue

In her Acknowledgements, Lynn K. Rogerson is absolutely right that we in Edmonton should give our thanks to Catherine Crowston and Laura Richie “for their foresight in making this rich cultural experience available to [our] communit[y].”  The exhibition, despite misleading marketing and missing pieces, is truly a marvelous thing to experience.  The catalogue which accompanies the exhibition, while beautiful and big, leaves much to be desired.

While the essays are very helpful in providing a general context for the art works, the commentaries on individual works I found to be uneven.  Sometimes there was simply no commentary and so, I was left wondering, for example about Legrand’s “Private Bar” (115).  At other times I detected hastiness and superficiality of analysis, for example concerning the placement of the blond woman’s hands in Osbert’s “Rêve du Soir (168) (she clearly has her hands clasped together on her friend’s shoulder and the shape on her face is a shadow). And research seems hasty at times, as in the suggestion that the small stream beyond the railway in Roy’s “Young Girls in a Landscape” is the Siene when it clearly seems to be the small Le Cailly River near Deville-les-Rouen and the young ladies seem to be standing in the vicinity of le Bois l’Archevêque, perhaps near the location of the present Cimetière Communal de Deville-les Rouen.  But now I’m just showing off.

As I’ve mentioned, the reproductions in the catalogue are not the best.  Many works appear muddy, washed out, or dull. Others are garish and bright compared to the actual works.

Certainly it is better to have a catalogue for a huge exhibit such as this than to have no reference material, but there is much that disappoints in this book.

While I have been critical of a number of things about Toulouse-Lautrec and La Vie Moderne: Paris 1880-1910, I must emphasize:

Please go to the show and take time to absorb the marvellous works on exhibit.  The Art Gallery of Alberta is the only Canadian stop for La Vie Moderne. Please take advantage of this wonderful opportunity!

Toulouse-Lautrec and La Vie Moderne: Paris 1880-1910 is at the Art Gallery of Alberta until November 16, 2014

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