Over the past twenty years, blockbuster shows have become a necessary evil at museums. When they succeed--and they usually do, at least financially--they increase attendance, and that's the bottom line in the exhibition business. But while they may attract big numbers economically, such shows can be aesthetically bankrupt.
At the Denver Art Museum, the situation has improved a great deal since the Muppets blockbuster of the late '70s. Just last month the DAM closed one extravaganza, 600 Years of British Painting: The Berger Collection, after drawing almost 100,000 people to the handsomely installed show. And now the museum raises the artistic stakes with Toulouse-Lautrec From the Metropolitan Museum of Art, another locally conceived blockbuster that opened in the first-floor Hamilton galleries in mid-April. Not only does this show have wide popular appeal--12,000 people saw it during its premiere week--but it's filled with good art presented in a thoughtful, intelligent way.
Toulouse-Lautrec was organized by guest curator Julia Frey, who displays an encyclopedic grasp of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the nineteenth-century French master of poster art. DAM director Lewis Sharp describes Frey as "one of the world's great experts on Toulouse-Lautrec" and notes that it was lucky for the museum that she lives in Boulder, where she's taught at the University of Colorado since 1976. Surprisingly, Frey is an associate professor of French--not a member of CU's art history department. But her knowledge of the French language--"I can read nineteenth-century French manuscripts," she points out--was extremely valuable in pulling the show together. So was Frey's experience as a studio artist: She received a bachelor of fine arts degree with a specialty in printmaking from Antioch College before going on to a Ph.D. in French from Yale.
In retrospect, Frey's knowledge of French, combined with her interest in printmaking, would seem to make Toulouse-Lautrec a natural focus of her studies. But she actually arrived at the subject through serendipity. "In the 1970s," she remembers, "I was working with the archivist of the University of Texas at Austin's manuscript collection. I was interested in an unpublished manuscript by [Gustave] Flaubert. When I finished with the Flaubert, I said, jokingly, 'What have you got for me next?' and she produced a collection of Toulouse-Lautrec family letters. As I examined the letters with a magnifying glass--the brown ink on the yellowed pages--I felt like Sherlock Holmes."
The letters were remarkable, full of previously unknown details about the artist. "It took me about fifteen minutes to realize how important they were," says Frey. Twenty years later, she's still doing work based on their contents.
The letters had wound up at UT after Carleton Lake, an Austin collector, donated them to the university's manuscript collection; he'd purchased the incunabula in 1956 from a Paris dealer who had gotten them directly from the Toulouse-Lautrec family. But as Frey researched the letters, she learned that Lake had purchased only some of the family's correspondence. The most important part of the hoard had been sold at the same time by the same Parisian dealer to another American collector, New Yorker Herbert Schimmel.
Frey met Schimmel in 1983. "MoMA was planning a Lautrec show, and I had been asked to write an essay for the catalogue," she says. "At that time, I was introduced to Mr. Schimmel. He invited me over to his Park Avenue apartment, which was filled with art-nouveau furniture. Over a glass of very bad white wine, made from grapes grown on the Toulouse-Lautrec estate in the south of France, Mr. Schimmel tried to decide if I was serious." She apparently passed the test, because Schimmel subsequently gave Frey photocopies of every Toulouse-Lautrec letter he had. "I was lucky I met him when I did," she adds. "I got to see the letters during a window of opportunity. About eight to ten years ago, Schimmel sold his entire collection to a Japanese bank, and the letters are now locked in a vault in Tokyo."
Once she had access to the Lake and Schimmel letters, Frey needed only to fill in the remaining piece of the puzzle: the thirty or so letters still in the possession of the Toulouse-Lautrec family. Through her efforts--and the miracle of photocopying--Frey finally brought the three collections together for the first time in almost half a century. She used the letters as the basis for her definitive and award-winning biography, Toulouse-Lautrec: A Life, a mammoth tome published by Viking Press in 1994; she's now in the process of writing another book that will focus on Toulouse-Lautrec's art.
Although Frey's expertise provided the foundation for Toulouse-Lautrec From the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the exhibit's name makes it sound as though it is a New York-based blockbuster rather than a locally inspired show. But while most of the pieces are on loan from the Met, which has the largest collection of Toulouse-Lautrec's work outside of France, Toulouse-Lautrec is indeed unique to Denver.
As visitors approach the show's narrow, bottleneck entrance, they encounter a life-sized photo of the artist, an enlarged copy of his cipher and a didactic text panel. Toulouse-Lautrec's height has been the subject of much confusion. The artist was only four foot eleven, "tall enough to be drafted," Frey notes. He did not have the condition known as dwarfism, nor did his short stature result from a childhood fall off a horse--a story as well-known, and inaccurate, as the one about Van Gogh cutting off his ear as a gesture of love for a prostitute. "Lautrec never rode a horse," Frey says. "His parents were first cousins, and he inherited a recessive gene. The exact nature of his condition continues to be debated, and it is not known exactly what it was."
The origins of Toulouse-Lautrec's cipher--the conjoined initials of his name, H, T and L, arranged in a circle--are considerably clearer. He was obviously inspired by Japanese marks, and the cipher is also related to the contemporary graphic design of English adherents to the arts and crafts movement, whose designs were pointedly Japanesque. Just beyond Toulouse-Lautrec's photo and cipher is a portal accented by a wrought-iron arch meant to suggest turn-of-the-century Paris, one of many emphatic decorative accents in the show. The robust and theatrical exhibition design was conceived by museum staffer Jeremy Hillhouse and is very appropriate for an artist whose specialty was the Parisian nightclub poster.
The first leg of the show, subtitled "A Life in Art" and filling two galleries painted a sickly chartreuse, lays out Toulouse-Lautrec's biography in a chronological survey of his art career. He was born in 1864 in Albi, in the south of France, to a wealthy and aristocratic family. As a result of their wealth, Toulouse-Lautrec was the first serious artist to be documented in studio photographs throughout his life, and reproductions of these photos are sprinkled throughout the exhibit. The display of Toulouse-Lautrec's own work starts with drawings done before he began his art training in 1882 in Paris, as a student of Fernand Cormon, who was also Van Gogh's teacher; it ends with some of the last pieces done before his death in 1901, at age 36, from alcoholism and syphilis.
Another nice feature in the design of "A Life in Art" is the use of dates prominently displayed over the pieces. This encourages viewers to see the pieces in order and thus follow Toulouse-Lautrec's stylistic progress during his very brief career. The oldest professional work here is the 1887 oil-on-wood portrait "Albert (Rene) Grenier." This straightforward picture, with just a whisper of impressionism, is typical of French painting in the late nineteenth century. The severe young man, Grenier, is wearing a black vest and a light-blue tie; his goatee and mustache have been carefully waxed and combed. He's a proper young man in a proper portrait, the kind of acceptable approach that Toulouse-Lautrec would quickly abandon. "Woman in the Garden of Monsieur Forest," an oil on canvas that is undated but was probably done between 1889 and 1891, already shows signs of change: This painting is more clearly post-impressionist in style, with unnatural color combinations and expressive and gestural brushwork.
In conversation, Frey reveals another unconventional aspect of this painting: The subject is a prostitute, a radical choice for Toulouse-Lautrec to have made at the time. Frey points out the coarseness of the woman's features and the fact that she is not wearing a hat--only two of the many elements that indicate she's the sort of person Toulouse-Lautrec's contemporaries would not consider suitable as an artistic subject.
Also in this section is the artist's debut commercial commission, "Moulin Rouge: La Goulue," a poster in color lithography from 1891. This is one of several posters seen in duplicate in the show; Frey says she wanted to have viewers see the same work in different contexts. By 1893, Toulouse-Lautrec was fully into the mature style that would place him among the founders of the Modern movement. In the magnificent and iconic "Aristide Bruant, Dans Son Cabaret," a color lithograph poster advertising a popular entertainer's revue, Toulouse-Lautrec uses bold, simple forms, principally in black accented with red. Bruant's image is shown partly from the rear and from below, two attributes seen in all the classic Toulouse-Lautrecs that reflect his height as well as his backstage presence.
"A Life in Art" finishes with several pieces done during Toulouse-Lautrec's rapid decline in 1899, when he was a patient in the Neuilly psychiatric clinic of Dr. Semalaigne. "Lautrec was diagnosed with memory loss at the clinic," says Frey. "To prove the doctors wrong, he did a drawing from memory." The drawing in question, "At the Circus: The Spanish Walk," is done in black and colored chalks and shows a horse and rider, again seen from the rear and below. The drawing proved that Toulouse-Lautrec's memory was fine, but it also demonstrated that his tenure as a cutting-edge artist was coming to an end.
After this big-picture look at Toulouse-Lautrec, the exhibit leads into a series of sections devoted to different ways of understanding his art. The first, a garishly decorated room painted pale coral, with a blue damask fabric applied below the white-painted chair rail, is titled "Lautrec's Models." Here Frey addresses the fact that Toulouse-Lautrec used the same people as subjects over and over. Among the featured models are his cousin Gabriel, who looked just like Toulouse-Lautrec except that he was six feet tall, and legendary entertainers such as Loe Fuller and Sarah Bernhardt.
Next up is "Lautrec's Posters," which fills two large galleries that have been painted a pale blue and accented with a black wrought-iron fence. Many of the artist's most famous posters are displayed here, as well as some less well-known examples. For example, "May Milton" and "May Belfort," color lithographs done in 1895, hang side by side; they were commissioned by lesbian lovers who performed in nightclub acts. Toulouse-Lautrec was interested in the lesbian demimonde that was apparently out in the open at that time in Paris--these were the gay '90s, after all. But another subject, the prostitutes Toulouse-Lautrec so frequently depicts, posed a problem for Frey, who needed to put together a family-friendly display. "The show is not for children," she notes, "but we wanted to allow parents the choice of bringing their children, so we set the prostitutes off to the side in their own space that is clearly labeled."
In this way, viewers may opt to exit the show through "Lautrec's Posters," or they can move on to three intimately scaled galleries. The first focuses on "Lautrec's Preoccupations," his self-portraits as small dogs and sad clowns. Then comes "The Artist at Work," in which Frey places Toulouse-Lautrec's preliminary drawings next to the very different finished posters. And finally, the R-rated room, painted whorehouse pink and dubbed "The Private Lives of Prostitutes." This area houses some of the exhibit's most beautiful prints, in particular the dozen lithographs from the "Elles" portfolio. Although their topic is racy, the prints themselves are anything but erotic and instead focus on the hardships of the oldest profession.
Frey's intelligent, multi-faceted approach to both the artist and the exhibit devoted to him clears up many misconceptions about this pioneer in the development of the modern poster. In the process, she also exposes Toulouse-Lautrec as a vulnerable human being with great empathy for the suffering of others--not the first thought that comes to mind when you encounter his high-spirited graphics.
Toulouse-Lautrec From the Metropolitan Museum of Art, through July 4 at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue, for tickets, call 1-888-903-0278.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Denver art and theater scene.