The Hamburger Kunsthalle presents C’est La Vie: the Paris from Daumier and Toulouse-Lautrec until August 3, 2014.The exhibition features more than 100 lithographic prints of the two 19th artists Honoré Daumier and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and unlike any other exhibit, examines the similarities of the two men.
At the turn of the century, la belle époque (the Beautiful Age) in Europe was a historical period between the end of the Franco-Prussian war and the beginning of the First World War. Well-to-do Parisians who were unable to cope with the realities of “modern life” embodied it. They insisted on sophistication and elegance in all that they experienced – from couture and fine dining to the arts. They spent leisurely days in luxurious splendor, to be in public and be seen by society. Both artists stood up and took notice of the era in their respective artistic styles through their lithographic prints.
The 19th century caricaturist, Honoré Daumier (1808-1879) became known as the “Michelangelo of caricature” in France after the French Revolution. His comic genius and proclivity for “monumental stylization” eclipsed the sharp truths of his executions.
In 1832, Daumier was appointed as the cartoonist for the political satire journal, La Caricature. No matter the subject, Daumier sharply focused on the distinguishing traits and behavior of every rank of Parisian society – from Paris’ middle class to the “frauds of speculators” and the pretentiousness of barristers, to the self-deceptions of artists and the avidity of proprietors. For the next 40 years, the political caricaturist rendered 3,958 lithographic prints before blindness ended his work in the 1870s.
Conversely, the 19th French painter-printmaker, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) created art that was nearly indivisible from his illustrious life. Like Daumier, he too lived surrounded by bohemian artists. In contrast, however, Toulouse-Lautrec came from an aristocratic family. Though he was first known as a Post-Impressionist painter, it was his lithographic prints brought him accolades.
His lithographs of dance hall performers and prostitutes exposed the sorrow and wit concealed beneath the heavy powder and gas lamps. Composed of flat color, strong outlines and silhouettes, his lithographs were strongly influenced by Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints. In addition, Toulouse-Lautrec’s lithographic prints often exhibited stunningly technical effects, as new innovations allowed larger lithographic prints, more wide-ranging colors, “nuanced textures” and a spattered-ink technique called crachis.
Collectively, their lithographic work coincided with the beginnings of modern printmaking. Toulouse-Lautrec’s lithographic posters promoted Montmartre entertainers and advanced the medium of advertising lithograph to the “realm of high art.” While, Daumier concentrated on King Louis-Philippe and the French government, wherein he mocked with an acidic wit that brought unwanted attention and the notice of the press police who handed him jail time in 1832. Daumier’s graphic approach of unrivaled cleverness was presented in an art form that received little distinction in France at the time.
Hamburger Kunsthalle Museum curator, Dr. Jonas Beyer noted, “both needed the immediate perception of their people,” and “both have created their directly experienced environment with great critical distance and irony.” The two artists had a satirical and behind the scenes approach – boudoirs, bordellos and other extremes of society. They took a peripheral view, by encapsulating a snapshot and bringing it into focus.
Daumier came to be experienced as a sharp-tongued chronicler of the inhabitants in Paris’ hustle and bustle. Toulouse-Lautrec, on the other hand, participated in the environment that allowed him to portray a society viewed as abhorrent and make it personal and humanistic. However, both artists depicted their subjects in mercilessly candid social contexts.
During la belle époque, artistic organizations implemented strict practices that regulated the arts. They emphasized rigid regulations over any “original personal expression.” Non-conforming artists were not only excluded, but also derided for violating tradition. Artists such as Daumier and Toulouse-Lautrec stayed sincere to their principles and created personal portrayals of their understanding of modern life.
Although the exhibit’s focus is on the master lithographs, the sophisticated posters and true-to-life caricatures were highly skillful in the utilization of artistic media of the times.
Works were drawn from the Hamburger Kunsthalle Museum’s extensive collection, as well as, collections of other major museums and private collections. To complete the exhibition, the museum highlights film documentaries on Paris in 1900, and displays large-scale historical photographs.
By Dawn Levesque