Bawdy women dance a sensuous can-can in Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s Moulin Rouge.
These are real women — the lithe Jane Avril, known for her subtle moves and “sudden contortions,” and Marcelle Lender, her red hair piled atop her head perfoming with abandon.
The artist depicted them in a style that forever changed the artistic world. But he was only one among many French artists making this transition between 1880 and 1910, an era where modernity was becoming a reality.
The LSU Museum of Art will highlight their work in “Toulouse-Lautrec and La Vie Moderne: Paris 1880-1910,” which opens Saturday, Sept. 5.
This traveling show is curated, organized and circulated by Art Services International of Alexandria, Virginia, and features more than 200 artworks and artifacts drawn from public and private collections, all celebrating the broad spectrum of avant-garde artists at the center of the Parisian artistic and cultural scene at the turn of the 19th century.
Along with Toulouse-Lautrec, the galleries will include work by Edouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard, Juan Gris and Mary Cassatt.
And everyone is sure to recognize the scraggly black cat, Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen’s iconic 1896 color lithograph, “Tournée du Chat Noir (Tour of the Black Cat).”
To bring the exhibit to Baton Rouge, which carries a $115,000 price tag, the museum needed a little help. Through a Kickstarter campaign — an Internet-based crowd funding platform — mounted through the Friends of LSU Museum of Art support group, the goal of $15,000 was met in January. Not only did it help defray the cost, but it also gave patrons a chance to be a part of bringing the exciting exhibit to Baton Rouge.
“Not very many museums have done it,” former curator Katie Pfohl said at the time. “I’ve seen some arts organizations do this, but I think we’re one of the first museums in Louisiana to do it if not the first.”
Carole and Charles Lamar and Charles Schwing are the show’s sponsors.
In a way, the museum’s exploration into modern fundraising methods matches the exhibit’s adventurous spirit, where artists experimented with different styles and techniques.
And at its center is Toulouse-Lautrec, who was born into an aristocratic family on Nov. 24, 1864. He began drawing at an early age, but suffered from an unknown genetic disorder that prevented a fracture in his right thigh bone from healing properly, which, in turn, prevented his legs from growing. Unable to enter the aristocratic life, Toulouse-Lautrec threw himself into his art, while living a bohemian lifestyle in Paris’ Montmarte district, where he’d become an important Post-Impressionist painter, art nouveau illustrator and lithographer.
He also contributed illustrations to “Le Rire” magazine and cultivated friendships with fellow artists Émile Bernard and Vincent van Gogh.
“Lautrec also fully participated in the lively, often radical, anti-establishment environment exemplified by the activities of Chat Noir cabaret,” according to museum’s information. “He thereby cleansed himself of many aristocratic prejudices and conservative views of life and began to identify with those on the margins of society — actors, actresses, circus performers, prostitutes — who became essential to his art.”
Montmarte also was home to the Moulin Rouge cabaret, which commissioned Toulouse-Lautrec to produce a series of posters. Though other artists looked down on the work, the poster job allowed the artist a chance to wean himself off family money and live on his own.
The Moulin Rouge, along with other Parisian nightclubs, such as Le Chat Noir and Divan Japonais, gave Toulouse-Lautrec the opportunity to depict singer Yvette Guilbert and dancer Louise Weber, known for creating the can-can.
His poster for Divan Japonais, featuring the red-headed Guilbert in her trademark black dress and feathered hat, is included in the show, as well as depictions of cabaret ladies performing Weber’s then-naughty dance.
Probably one of the most notable posters in this lineup depicts Jane Avril, who replaced Weber at the Moulin Rouge, and took quite the opposite tack from the boisterous dancer. Her subtle moves and jerky contortions earned her an adoring audience, and she was often painted by Toulouse-Lautrec.
“Lautrec was part of a new generation of creative artists who broke away from the restraints of academic art by working in the media of poster-making, printmaking, and book and journal illustration,” according to the museum’s information. “Lithography became their preferred medium, and they pushed the medium to its technical and aesthetic extremes. Poster-making allowed Lautrec to present his art in full color to a large and receptive public without compromising his aesthetic intent or subject matter.”
Paris not only was the breeding ground for artistic movements at this time but also a new literary movement that challenged the establishment, seeking to come to terms with a complex society.
“The show is quite a kaleidoscope of articles from this amazing time in Parisian history,” says exhibit designer Terry Beckham, adding there will also be books on display.
Beckham is the head designer at the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama. The LSU Museum hired him to design its new permanent collection galleries, then asked him to return for the Toulouse-Lautrec show in the absence of a curator.
“My job is visual interpretation,” Beckham says. “My job is to keep the groupings together and make them flow in the gallery. The work is matted in gold frames, I wanted the walls to be a dark blue for contrast and to reflect the moody nightlife in Paris at the time.”
Beckham will arrive in Baton Rouge on Aug. 30 to oversee the installation.
“I’m giving Toulouse-Lautrec the best space in the show, because he’s the most iconic,” he says. “He’ll have a whole gallery to himself, which can also be seen from a distance within the show.”
Though Beckham didn’t curate the show, he reveres its meaning and history.
“I can’t tell you how excited I am to know that I’ll be working with the artwork from this place and time,” he says. “What Toulouse-Lautrec and the other artists were doing during this era changed everything in the art world.”
Everything was new, and their art defined “la vie moderne.”