Art Review: Toulouse-Lautrec & Montmartre exhibit in Chicago

Artists, poets, writers, composers, dancers, singers, circus performers, drunkards, prostitutes, pimps, working-class poor, tourists and middle-class bourgeois thrill seekers gathering in crowded narrow city streets, nightclubs and brothels converge at the Art Institute of Chicago in the exhibition: “Toulouse-Lautrec & Montmartre,” now through Oct. 10.

This show features prints, posters, photographs, paintings and movies celebrating “La Belle Epoch” at the end of the 19th century in the famed Parisian bohemian suburb.

It is a well-conceived exhibition of a time that burned brightly and faded quickly. Presented are some of the images of the most popular entertainers of the day. Also highlighted is the seedier side of life during this time. It is presented without being glamorized. The images are often the sickly greenish-yellow color of the artificial lighting inside the famous and infamous cabarets of the district or simple, straightforward studies of the patrons and prostitutes.

Degas, Picasso, Japanese printmaking, the Impressionists, among others, are evident as they influence the work of the best-known artist of the time, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and his contemporaries, notably Jules Cheret. This all comes together to create a chronicle of a specific time and place.

The posters by Cheret and Toulouse-Lautrec are wonderful (exquisite in person), but they are just a small piece of this exhibition. I went expecting mostly just that and was pleasantly surprised by the depth of the exhibit. If you go, I hope that you are, too.

As one of the posters of the nightclub Le Chat Noir (the Black Cat) says: GAUDEMUS. Its translation from Latin: “Be joyful.” It appeared to be a joyful time, although very short lived.

From the Sept. 28-Oct. 4, 2005, issue

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