Highlights of the exhibition The Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec (MoMA)

September 5, 2014 | By Louise Lassarre

A little over a month into the exhibition The Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec: Prints and Posters presented at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) from July, 26th, 2014 to March, 22, 2015, Dorothée Charles, Visual Arts, Architecture and Design Program Officer at the French Cultural Services, met with Sarah Suzuki, the curator of the exhibition. As a highlight of the exhibition, this interview intends to make visible "the incredible range and richness of Toulouse-Lautrec's work". That is that Sarah Suzuki "hopes that people are getting out of this show".


Dorothée Charles (DC): How did the exhibition of Toulouse-Lautrec works at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) come about?

Sarah Suzuki (SS): We have a very long relationship with Toulouse-Lautrec here at MoMA. The tenth show we ever did in the museum’s history was a Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition in 1934. I think there already was understanding that Lautrec’s printed work was in fact the most true and original artistic statement that he made across the practice. He really developed his own artistic language in his works. He was really innovating when he was in print shops, and creating his own way of doing things. When you see the paintings they’re phenomenal, but you can see very clearly that he’s looking at post-impressionism predecessors like Degas or Manet for example. You see his brushwork but you also see very clearly the influence of those who came before. And when it comes to the posters, he really developed a very singular kind of approach. And this is at a moment in which the pace  of life is really picking up. I mean people are in carriages, and you started to see the introduction of automobile in the city. And so things literally  moved faster. He developed these posters that are so incredibly graphic that they are going to stop you whether you’re moving slowly on a horse or quickly in an automobile, it’s really incredible. And these posters are designed to bring people to night clubs or to performances.


DC: When did the MoMA start to collect Toulouse-Lautrec work?

SS: Our collecting of Lautrec began very early. One of the three women who funded MoMA was Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, a phenomenal philanthropist and collector who also thought that prints were a really good, interesting and democratic way to introduce the public to contemporary art. She thought the idea of these more democratic mediums which existed in multiple copies were great ways to let people know that this is not so intimidating. She herself started a collection of Lautrec material, printed material, which she gave to MoMA in 1940. And then a second collection that she gave in 1946. Probably about 85% of the works in the show came to us at some point from the collection of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. In fact there’s only four works in the show that are not from MoMA’s collection and they are from the collection of David Rockefeller—he is the son of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. When he came to the show he told me he remembered seeing these works in his house when he was growing up. So he really gave this kind of tremendous institution and also this personal history, which is pretty amazing.


DC: Who was Toulouse-Lautrec?

SS: Toulouse-Lautrec was an incredibly interesting artistic personality. He really lived a kind of dual existence. He grew up in an aristocratic family and had a very close relationship with his mother who was a conservative woman who believed in manners. And it’s only when he went to Paris as an art student that he was able to kind of let loose and developed this entirely different personality—wild, artistic, eccentric—that everybody knew around Paris. I think he enjoyed playing other parts, and one other thing, I think he looked for in performers was that performers were also creating a very different person from their everyday life. He did enjoy very much masquerade and dress-up. Actually Toulouse-Lautrec was a very habit traveler, extensively throughout Europe. And one of his dreams was to go to Japan. Toulouse-Lautrec had his own collection of Japanese objects and he learned a lot of artistic lessons from those things. But he also dreamed of traveling to Japan because he had this idea that everything in Japan was miniature, that the people are short. He himself was very short as a result of genetic problem that he had from birth.  And I think he always dreamed that he would fit in this kind of miniature society.


DC: How did you compose the exhibition?

SS: The idea of the show is that for Toulouse-Lautrec the city of Paris was really the inspiration in all of its aspects. So we’ve kind of broken the exhibition up in five sections. One of them has to do with the café-concert, a kind of nightlight culture in Paris which Toulouse-Lautrec was part of. There is a section that focuses on the performers on stage that were really his muses, like Jane Avril or La Goulue who come up again and again in the works. There is a section devoted to his depiction of women. He was really fascinated by them. He had really interesting and emotional relationship with women: shop girls, the performers that he so admired, his mother who was a constant presence in his life, the prostitutes he often depicted in their work. And then two sections: one deals with his creative circles. So the composers, and those for who he was making illustrations for sheet music but also the authors that he was working with the literary and artistic reviews that he was making illustrations for. And then a section about the pleasure of Paris. He was a great lover of entertainment in all types but also of going to Longchamp, of watching people in the Bois de Boulogne doing their promenade, of going to dinner and enjoying Paris. So these five sections make a kind of overall picture of Paris in this moment in many ways that were such  an influence for Toulouse-Lautrec.


DC: Could you explain the women section of the exhibition?

  1. 1-Jane Avril and the relationship Toulouse-Lautrec had with her?

SS: Jane Avril is the performer who probably appears over the longest period of time in Toulouse-Lautrec’s work. They had a relationship that went beyond those he had with some of the other performers. In the piece Cover for L'Estampe Originale (1893) he really has a close relationship with her. You can see in this work that this is actually Jane Avril off-stage, in her day classic and in fact in Toulouse-Lautrec daytime world which not many people got to be part of (Suzuki motions to the print). So here she is in a print shop. This is one of the Toulouse-Lautrec printer. You can see the printer at the back. She is kind of looking at a print. In the work Jane Avril (1899) you can see she’s feigning choc with her snake dress, so brilliant. The other thing about Jane Avril is that she had a neurological disorder. She had this disease from a relatively young age and spent some time in a sanatorium when she was a teenager. And she kind of found her cure in dance. And I think for Toulouse-Lautrec, who himself, as we mentioned, had his own medical issues, to have this women in his life, this friend who herself had medical issues but found a way to overcome, even to use that to her advantage…  And in fact her dance style had this kind of spasmodic motion that we called her “choria”, a disease. I think that they have this in common, this kind of negative that they managed to turn into positive.

  1. 2-And what about Miss Loïe Fuller (1893)?

SS: So this is an image of the dancer Loïe Fuller, an American who came to Paris in 1892 and really was a tremendous innovating and modern dancer. And it’s interesting, as you see in  the two films in the corner, two different approaches to dance at this moment: super populist—cancan, and then this kind of avant-garde, modern dance. As we see in this film, she has this technique as she was wearing a white dress and then from the orchestra pit someone would turn the stage lights and there are colors of the light would constantly shift and would be projected on to her dress. So the colors of the costume would constantly shift and it was kind of a magical thing. A lot of artists at the time were totally enchanted by this and would try to capture it in their work. So when Toulouse-Lautrec decided to depict Loïe Fuller it was just as a singular image but to me probably the most audacious of his compositions. When you look at it, it looks like an abstract work, more or less. But as you look close you can see the head of the dancer and her little feet. And again as you spend a little more time you actually start to see the frame of the orchestra pit, the head of the instrument that comes out of the orchestra pit and into the space. So it’s only as you look at it that you start to get sense of what the space is and what it’s depicted here. He captured it so brilliantly. The other thing is that this is one of the 60 copies, and each of the 60 is an entirely different color combination. So if you were lucky enough to ever see the all 60 together, you would see the sense of the constantly shifting of the color. It’s really tremendous. This one is, among them, depicted with gold pigment. It’s a kind of lightness. The fact that he could work with such an intimate scale in this almost abstract mode while at the same time he gave these colorful thing, to me it’s just indicative of how brilliant his range was.

  1. 3-And the port-folio Elles?

SS: It was actually commissioned by a publisher of erotic material. And it had to be 12 rougher scenes. I think the publisher was excited of the possibility of capitalizing on Toulouse-Lautrec, particularly his access to this kind of erotic world. Oftentimes people say that some of his work is ugly or some of his work is beautiful, but I think what it is is that Toulouse-Lautrec was a real observer. He wasn’t beautifying, he was really depicting things as he saw them. So in this case of the 12 images what he depicted was very quiet, very intimate but very mundane, honestly, scenes of the life of these women as they lived and  worked.


DC: Can you tell us about the different techniques used by Toulouse Lautrec in print and posters?

SS: Lithograph was Toulouse-Lautrec’s medium. He made his first lithograph in 1892. The first poster he made as a lithograph was a big success. So after that he became very devoted to the medium. But he used to spend a lot of time in the print shop, talking to the printers about how to achieve certain techniques. It was at a really interesting moment because it’s when the lithography is used for the first time for artistic purposes rather than just commercial purposes, like for magazines. So he wanted to learn from them and really know how can he make these things happen himself. And then he started to develop his own technique as well, most famously something called crachis


Sarah Suzuki is Associate Curator in the Department of Prints and Illustrated Books at The Museum of Modern Art. At MoMA she has organized exhibitions including ‘Ideas Not Theories’: Artists and The Club, 1942–1962 (2010); Rock Paper Scissors (2010); Mind & Matter: Alternative Abstractions, 1940 to Now (2010); Wunderkammer: A Century of Curiosities (2008); and Focus: Elizabeth Murray (2005), as well as solo projects with Yin Xiuzhen (2010), Song Dong (2009), and Gert and Uwe Tobias (2008). Suzuki has worked on projects with a wide range of subjects, including Collaborations with Parkett: 1984 to Now (2001); The Russian Avant-Garde Book 1910–1934 (2002), and Eye on Europe: Prints, Books & Multiples/1960 to Now (2006). She has contributed to numerous books and catalogues, including Modern Women: Women Artists at The Museum of Modern Art (2010); Dada in the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art (2008); Eye on Europe: Prints, Books & Multiples/1960 to Now (2006); Greater New York 2005 (2005); and Artists & Prints: Masterworks from The Museum of Modern Art (2004), as well as a revised edition of the Museum's collection handbook. She has also lectured and taught numerous courses on the subject of modern and contemporary prints.


Image: © Maurice Guibert.

Interview by Dorothée Charles and transcribed by Louise Lassarre

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