An exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, 6th October, 2018 to 20th January, 2019


Edited by Hannah Brocklehurst and Frances Fowle

National Galleries of Scotland. 120 pages. £19.95. ISBN 978-1-911054-21-4

reviewed by Jim Burns

As the introduction to the excellent catalogue for this exhibition points out, a “culture of celebrity” is not something that suddenly appeared around the mid to late-twentieth century when the world of pop began to demonstrate how important publicity was to the success of many musicians and singers. Back in the Paris of the 1880s and 1890s a variety of entertainers thrived on the attention focused on them. There was a difference, of course. Contemporary celebrities can depend on all the technological devices available to disseminate their photos, actions, pronouncements, no matter how banal, on a world-wide basis. Even the least talented among them, including those who are simply celebrated for being seen in the right company, often have their moments of fame or notoriety.

In Paris, however, it was largely the poster that provided a basis for circulating the names of the performers, and the places where they appeared. This may have been a limiting factor in some ways in that it may have led to the awareness of a performer’s skills being known to only Parisians and some foreign visitors to the city. It’s true that some of the better artists from the Moulin Rouge, the Chat Noir, and elsewhere, did perform outside Paris and even travelled abroad to appear in theatres in London, New York, and other cities. But it’s hard to dispel the idea that the kind of performances, and those who gave them, referred to in the posters included in the exhibition, were largely a Parisian phenomenon. It may even raise the question that, had it not been for a major talent like that possessed by Lautrec, would we now be looking back to the late days of the 19th century with a kind of nostalgia (it is possible to be nostalgic for something one didn’t directly experience) or at least with a romanticised notion of what went on in Montmartre?

The fact is that faded photographs, scratchy recordings, and a few similar mementos apart, little exists of the work of most of the performers to persuade us that they were as good as contemporaries claimed them to be. We rely on the posters to recreate what we imagine they were like. Interestingly, the value of many of the posters as art, and not merely as advertisement, seems to have been recognised almost from the start as technical innovations, and a loosening of licensing laws, caused them to proliferate. People went out and stripped them from walls and hoardings almost as soon as they were put up. Exhibitions of poster art were organised, dealers began to specialise in them. The first poster exhibition took place in Paris in 1884, and a major one In London in 1894/95. I don’t think we ever had any poster artists in this country to compare with Lautrec, Jules Chéret, and Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen. They were among the leading names, along with Alphonse Mucha, who largely specialised in advertising Sarah Bernhardt, but many other artists produced posters, if not to the same degree as Lautrec. Pierre Bonnard is an example. Designing posters presumably paid reasonably well and could help support struggling younger artists.

It is Lautrec who occupies the key role in the exhibition, and more than a few of his best-known posters can be seen on its walls. Aristide Bruant, Yvette Guilbert, La Goulue, and Jane Avril. They’re all there. He also portrayed some lesser-known performers, such as May Milton and May Belfort. The latter had a brief success with the song, “Daddy Wouldn’t Buy me a Bow-Wow”, though her career failed to develop after that. If the song is ever heard now I doubt that many people will know who first sang it. As for May Milton, she soon disappeared from the stage and would be completely forgotten were it not for Lautrec’s poster.

There are other posters and paintings in the exhibition that are well worth mentioning. Jules Chéret’s design for LoÏs Fuller’s appearance at the Folies Bergère is eye-catching. Fuller, an American, specialised in dancing while “dressed in reams of white silk, with wands sewn inside the sleeves, she would swirl the fabric to create spectacular sculptural forms”. Henri-Gabriel Ibels’ poster for “the popular entertainer Jane Debary” is less colourful than Lautrec and Chéret, but is still striking. And Steinlen’s brilliant poster, “Cabaret of the Chat Noir with Rudolph Salis”, is a stand-out item. He amusingly mocked Alphonse Mucha’s liking for the halos he often placed around the heads of his females by showing his cat with one.

Two small, but typical Daumier lithographs, a 1930s painting by Sickert of high-stepping chorus girls, and his early 1900s, “The Old Bedford”, a music-hall he frequented, and several works by the Scottish colourist, John Duncan Ferguson are bonus items. I was particularly taken by Ferguson’s, “The Terrace at the Café d’Harcourt”, which is described as “a fashionable meeting place for writers, artists and intellectuals”.

Pin-Ups: Toulouse-Lautrec & the Art of Celebrity doesn’t break any new ground, but it is a thoroughly entertaining and in some ways instructive exhibition. The emphasis is obviously on personalities, but posters also played a key role in advertising products. Bonnard’s poster promoting a brand of champagne is a notable example.