Monday, October 15, 2012
Art review: Unpack unapologetic tension in the DMA’s Posters of Paris
This part of the review has been prohibited.
DALLAS Consider it quintessentially bourgeoisie: The designation of particular works or performances as “delightfully low-brow” is so firmly established throughout history, one might not even recognize it as a function, intentional or inadvertent, of delineation among perceived social classes. We love the “trashy,” and we always have, so long of course, that it doesn’t go “too far.” Honey Boo Boo is in; “welfare queens” are out. Thrill us, chill us, just don’t pollute us.
Ironically – or perhaps not at all – something just so "delightfully tacky" hangs currently at the DMA. When Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and his contemporaries began producing advertisements during the first wave of affichomanie (Poster Mania) in Paris during the 1870s-1890s, contemporaries raved about the amusingly gauche designs. Advertising everything from cabarets, bars, and tantalizing performers to cigarettes, newspapers, and household products, smut-light hit big in the last quarter of the nineteenth century in Paris. The Dallas Museum of Art’s new exhibition, Posters of Paris: Toulouse-Lautrec & His Contemporaries – which opened on October 14 – is a fascinating subversion of this definitively subverting phenomenon.
Affichomanie was, at its heart, a counter-cultural movement, despite the fact that it knowingly fed into a capitalistic system. While its depictions of can-caning, bloomer-flashing nightlife gently titillated mainstream consumers, thrilled from boredom by the city's tacky undercurrent, it too warranted a certain Bohemian appeal; it was, after all, an impermanent collection in an “open-museum” where anyone could appreciate the the best poster artists' immense technical skill. The posters were plastered over, stolen, and defaced; they papered Left Bank walls in studios fit for poets and scoundrels. Today, they hang unironically in a multi-million dollar building, mere blocks from Dallas’ financial district.
But despite this seeming cognitive dissonance, the exhibition – originally curated for the Milwaukee Art Museum by Dr. Mary Weaver Chapin and curated for its Dallas presentation by the DMA’s Dr. Heather MacDonald – is throughout a remarkable installation, conscious of that tension but, like the posters themselves, refusing to take too seriously any notable collision among capitalistic advertisements, beloved by revolutionaries as well as blushing pillars of the community. After all, artists have for centuries begrudgingly created for profit – or rather, just to survive; what's rare, however, is when the product of that "selling out" is as technically and aesthetically interesting as the bright and swirling posters from this period. And, what place more befitting of such an artistic contribution than our own DMA?
But, what of that contribution – can we take seriously, or should we instead glance wearily, toward any movement marked by a somewhat seedy popular appeal? Take, for instance, the effect that technology has instilled in modern creativity: Virtually anyone with a computer can create and disseminate videos, graphics, novels, news stories, and so on. But, you will be hard pressed to find genius on YouTube. In fact, much of what you uncover would be considered contemptible if it weren’t so easily ignored. We wonder: Is the democratization of art its unequivocal depreciation?
But, as was the case most recently when a crudely-fashioned video incited (or, allegedly incited) violence in Libya, even pop art – the term used as loosely as possible in this case – weilds a certain combustible power. One of the most interesting examples from Posters of Paris is Alfred Choubrac’s Fin de Siècle which, upon government censorship, the artist reworked and reprinted, covering its offending section with the words, “Cette Partie du Dessin a été Interdite” – or, “This part of the drawing has been prohibited.” A savvy move, of course, which drew even more attention and, according to Weaver Chapin, attracted collectors who, by 1896 were willing to pay more than 20 times the cost of a typical Choubrac poster. Throughout, Posters of Paris examines this intersection of art with celebrity and infamy, emphasizing the cult-of-personality figures at work at the time and pushing social buttons with a warm and innocuous grin.
That said, despite their humor, mild bawdiness, and general lightheartedness, the works in Posters of Paris are not mere graphic follies. With Hellenistic and Roman references and exhibiting a myriad of styles from Byzantine to rococo to art nouveau, the collection is as beautiful as it is intellectually and historically significant. Alphonse Mucha’s art nouveau renderings of actress Sarah Bernhardt are a shining example, with their muted pastels and intricate curves. Posters by Henri Gray and PAL (Jean de Paléologue) prominently feature goddesses which, because they depict supernatural beings, were able to circumvent censorship; the effect of these sensually unnerving "moth women" is breathtaking, despite the fact they sell items as quotidian as household utilities and "bicycles for the modern woman."
Throughout, Posters of Paris is the thoughtful product of passionately thorough curators who have chosen prints and expressed those prints' cultural and historical significance in ways that engage patrons on multiple levels. It forces patrons to confront what the first wave of affichomanie says about populist art movements; the collision of art, censorship, and infamy; and the intersection of art and capital, all of which is undeniably as relevant today as it was among Lautrec's contemporaries. The exhibition not only worth seeing; it is, too, worth unpacking with an attention to sociological, historical, and personal understanding.
Posters of Paris: Toulouse-Lautrec & His Contemporaries is on view through January 20 in the Chilton Gallery II and Focus Gallery I. For more information on lectures, activities, and accompanying programs – including a particularly inticing Late Night Lecture: Toulouse-Lautrec and the Cult of Celebrity in Fin-de-Siècle Paris by organizing curator and researcher Dr. Mary Weaver Chapin at 9 p.m. November 16 – click here.
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