Even scantily-clad ladies of the dancehall need promotion, and in the heyday of the Moulin Rouge, they depended on street posters to get an audience and turn them into stars. "Posters of Paris: Toulouse-Lautrec and His Contemporaries," the Dallas Museum of Art's new exhibition exploring the color, size, and joie de vivre of a very lively meeting of design and advertisement, ferries museumgoers to the bustling, romantic streets of nineteenth century Paris.
Winding through a succession of small gallery spaces that trace the origin, highlights and quirks of the medium, this fabulously fresh and delightful exhibition never flags. The wall labels contextualizing the historical and artistic development of the Parisian poster are fascinating. Many of the subjects are real people working in entertainment: Sarah Bernhardt gets a section to herself, but so does Loie Fuller, a Folies Bergere dancer whose poster postures could not have been posed, and whose "fire dance" is simply, stunningly sold as a burning flame on a jet-black night by Jules Cheret, "Father of the Poster."
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Cheret is credited with elevating the poster to an art form with bigger color, bigger size and better design, and economy is key (except, perhaps, with size). On a poster by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, certainly the most famous of these artists, a single line creates the sweeping, amorphous cape, in rearview yet, of one of the era's Master Thespians, deftly capturing his pomposity, his appetite, and his airs.
But pleasure is the soul of this canny show, and it's presented in all manner of seducers. The "End of an Era" gallery offers a jittery green demon selling a cherry-flavored aperitif; the gallery preceding it is dedicated to "Bicycles and the Modern Woman"; the Consumer Products section shares "the delight of smoking" among its jokes and jitters; and the entire exhibition pays homage to the female bosom. And who doesn't love breasts? Repeated use of snakes and roosters (what could be behind that metaphor?), jesters, masked women, rich dudes and happy party people with arms akimbo and jazz hands. It's a truly joyful decadence.
Posters of Paris: Toulouse-Lautrec and His Contemporaries runs through January 20, 2013, at the Dallas Museum of Art. It was organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum; Dr. Heather MacDonald curated the Dallas exhibition.