Hats off to Moulin's rogue


One of the exhilarating posters.

One of the exhilarating posters.  

THE SPIRIT of French post-Impressionist master Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is alive and kicking in the world of posters. Or should that read posters of the world? Either way, Le Nouveau Salon des Cent, a travelling exhibition of 100 original posters by graphic designers from 24 countries, launched in 2001 as a death centenary tribute to the Art Nouveau master, proves that poster art is currently booming globally.

On display at the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath from May 27 to June 8, this dazzling tribute to Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) by graphic designers, illustrators, digital artists and animators whom his work inspired, is wacky, spirited and tantalising. Acknowledging their debt to the master of Art Nouveau graphic design, the show reveals the extended family of visual talent he spawned in his wake.

To the Indian mind, Toulouse-Lautrec summons up a flurry of images. Of his brilliant depictions of Paris nightlife and the underworld, especially the Moulin Rouge. Of his life in Montmartre, the Paris entertainment district, which resulted in immortal paintings of its entertainers, including Jane Avril, May Belfort, Chocolate, La Goulue, and Yvette Guilbert, each rendered in an exaggerated but characteristic gesture. Of his deformed, dwarfish appearance resulting from an accident at 14, which made him hypersensitive socially, so that he preferred the society of prostitutes and outcasts. To many, his silhouette with its distinctive derby hat and pince-nez glasses evokes his genius graphically.

What else do we know of Toulouse-Lautrec's work? That his paintings and lithographs of the Parisian cabarets and music halls of the 1880s and 1890s, once seen, are impossible to forget, with their bright colours, vivid lighting and strong contours. That he was strongly influenced by Edgar Degas and Japanese prints. That he had mastered the art of capturing movement, while his forms were often flat with curved lines. That he had helped to fashion Art Nouveau, with its characteristic ornate style, typically with long, flowing lines that twisted in snakelike fashion. Strangely enough, he often painted his oils on unprimed cardboard, so that the neutral whitish colour of the background formed part of the design.

Summoning up the Art Nouveau movement from 1890 to 1900, Thadee Natanson of the Revue Blanche recalls: "No one will ever again see the marvel that broke forth on the streets of Paris at the end of the 19th century ... the appearance of Lautrec's posters. Next to this, it is nothing to study saved copies or reproductions, or even to plaster them over the walls at home. One had to have seen them living. Posters are not meant to turn yellow in the portfolios of libraries. They need to have the lining and varnish of the glue, and their rips suit them." Having missed these original posters in their prime, we can only celebrate this tribute to the artist, conceived by the Partners' Club of the Musee Toulouse-Lautrec at Albi, his birthplace.

If the master's posters were distinguished by the synthesis of deliberately flattened images, depths that grew out of spatial play, and even exaggeration as expression, beginning with his famous poster of Moulin Rouge at 27, how do his artistic descendents respond to him? With works of luminous versatility and indisputable quality.

Most of the selected artists have chosen not to pit themselves against the memory of the master. Could they have survived, had they taken the risk? Some have chosen the path of fantasy. Others have dabbled in personal devices. Still others have played the gentle fool with Toulouse-Lautrec's legacy of photographs, including those of him in Japanese costume.

The result, even partially glimpsed? The pince-nez and the derby are juxtaposed creatively in German Gunter Kieser's lithograph. Paula Scher of the US opts to dress Jane Avril in brilliant typography.

Japanese Shigeo Fukuda transforms into a puny robot of a dog at Avril's feet, while Ronald Churchod of France chooses to toss off an irreverent woman-headed centaur with Lautrec as its tail, amidst golden droppings! Other artists offer him women - Japanese Makoto Saito's is almost a chimerical creature, American James Victore offers a beautiful breast, and Frenchman Harri Peccinotti's wears trendy denim hot pants!

How else does the creative imagination evolve through this exhibit, where nationalities are indistinguishable and careers in art seem irrelevant? Whether fluorescent squiggles by Nicklaus Troxler that flutter bird-like to reveal a puzzle or Alan Fletcher's sketch of a Lautrec portrait of Oscar Wilde from 1895, whether a photographic spoof of an asylum or Milton Glaser's minimalist play with images and letters or whorls of a fingerprint atop a derby, these posters represent their art with verve.

What was the original Le Salon des Cent? An offshoot of the 1889-born Parisian literary journal La Plume, launched by Leon Deschamps, it was originally intended for a hundred artists involved in the journal. But it later expanded to include all who shared common ground. The 43 exhibitions it held were heralded by posters, including two signed by Toulouse-Lautrec.

The noted salon was revived to mark the Lautrec anniversary.

Though this brilliant exhibition does not feature any Indian graphic designer (Dashrath Patel would have been an easy fit in this company), Bangalore is fortunate to be a stop en route as it wends its way around the globe, thanks to the French embassy and the Alliance Francaise.

Perhaps the spirit of the enterprise is best summed up tongue-in-cheek by Charles Anderson's outsize jar of Anti-Bohemian lifestyle ointment. What does it promise? It "keeps brilliant artists from aging prematurely - for the treatment of addictive excesses and other self-destructive tendencies mistakenly thought to be essential ingredients in the creation of art". Touch�!

What's left to say about these pictorial conversations between cultures? Vive la Toulouse-Lautrec!

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