Joanna Shaw-Eagle, The glitter and the gutter (Washington Times, March 25)
Thomas Singer, Poster boy for celebrity circus (Washington Times, March 25)
Robert Siegel, Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre (NPR, March 31)
Eugene Robinson, Art vs. the Church Lady (Washington Post, April 12)
Tyler Green, At the NGA, Toulouse-Lautrec & Montmartre (Modern Art Notes, April 12)
Lauren Gaskill, Toulouse-Lautrec exhibit fun, syphilis-tinged (Georgetown Voice, April 14)
Michael Kilian, Nation's capital sports a French accent (Chicago Tribune, April 22)
Michael O'Sullivan, The Spirit of 'Montmartre' (Washington Post, April 22)
The exhibit begins with what is likely the biggest draw for many visitors, Toulouse-Lautrec's advertising posters, which don't really interest me, I have to say. I agree with Blake Gopnik who, in his preview of this exhibit back in February, said that Toulouse-Lautrec gets "more regular outings than his modest achievements as an artist might warrant." For the most part, the posters in the show look like... old posters. They have faded quite a bit, and that makes perfect sense since they were created as transitory objects. There's not much depth to them.
Most of the rooms in this show have a theme, meant to bind together the works by Toulouse-Lautrec with the large number of other artists' works. The first such theme is the café drinker, which includes the show's only Manet (Plum Brandy, from around 1877, already in the NGA collection, so big deal) and some Van Goghs. By far the best Van Gogh is the loving Glass of Absinthe and Carafe (1884, from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam), which seems to be the very same glass of absinthe on the table in front of Van Gogh in Toulouse-Lautrec's portrait of him (1887). There are many more artworks featuring la fée verte, the best of which is probably Degas's L'Absinthe (1876).
A discovery for me were paintings by Ramón Casas, including the portrait of enigmatic composer Erik Satie and an abstracted view of Sacré-Cœur, Montmartre, from around 1890. A little Internet searching produced a couple more of his Montmartre paintings, such as Entrance to the Moulin de la Galette (1891), Plein Air (1891), and Madeleine (1892). I also enjoyed the photographs in the exhibit, which show the dance halls and performers which (and who) are so familiar to us from paintings of the late 19th century but take on a much more real existence when seen in photographs.
If you already like Toulouse-Lautrec, you will enjoy this exhibit. Some of the most famous works are here, such as At the Moulin-Rouge (1892–1895), which is framed by two of Toulouse-Lautrec's studies for the painting. There is an original of the famous poster for the Chat Noir, actually not by Toulouse-Lautrec but be Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen. It is hung quite high on the wall, where I saw several visitors straining their necks to see it, but I was glad that right at eye level is a series of silhouette images from Henri Rivière's famous théâtre d'ombres (which is being recreated in Paris, as I wrote in a recent post).
I agree with Tyler Green that the best room in the show is the one dedicated to the American experimental dancer Loïe Fuller, who was as I said in a post last year (Watercolor of Loïe Fuller, June 7, 2004) the inspiration for Debussy's prelude Voiles. Not only is there a series of Toulouse-Lautrec's lithographs, in individually applied colors, to reflect the innovative lighting that Fuller used in her show, which made her veils shimmer in different colors. There is a screen above those lithographs that plays a 2-minute loop of a film of Fuller actually dancing, the only time I have ever seen her on film. This alone makes this exhibit a must-see.
Where I differ with Tyler is in the scandalous part of the show, a large room dedicated to the maisons closes, with many paintings of prostitutes unlacing their corsets, sitting on couches, with the weary look of human merchandise, meeting their clients. I found this room really creepy and was reminded of Proust's narration of his narrator's deflowering in just such a brothel, in À la recherche du temps perdu, which took place right around the time when these paintings were made. These works may not be all that disturbing by comparison to more recent examples of shock art, but I still found them to be an arresting documentation of this facet of late-19th-century life.
Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre will be at the National Gallery of Art until June 12. You lucky folks in Chicago will be able to see it at the Art Institute of Chicago, from July 16 to October 10.