Although the seasonal hideaway of Palm Beach is considerably less populous in the summer, West Palm Beach’s Norton Museum of Art remains committed to substantive year-round curation all the same. Florida’s largest art museum, located just across the Intracoastal Waterway, launched its newest exhibition just weeks ago, a collection of original lithographic posters by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Reopened this past February after an ambitious eight-year, $100-million renovation and expansion designed by Norman Foster—which itself followed an impressive expansion some fifteen years earlier—the museum now boasts 35 percent more gallery space in addition to performance facilities, a restaurant, and a large sculpture garden.
Like so many great things in the arts, the exhibition itself came together serendipitously. Over lunch with Tim Wride, the Norton’s photography curator, the Palm Beach socialite Jan Willinger mentioned that she was planning to place her Toulouse-Lautrec collection in storage while she was away this summer. Sensing a rare opportunity, Wride proposed the museum as a fine off-season home. Willinger donated one of her works to the Norton’s permanent collection and happily agreed to loan the rest, and the Museum’s intern program selected four intrepid young curators-to-be—Louis Dzialo, Magdalena Glotzer, Allison Marino, and Sarah Ortiz-Monasterio—to design the exhibition under Wride’s mentorship.
One of the great challenges of a Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition, something the Norton has not attempted in forty-five years, is that his artwork is now almost nauseatingly commonplace. One can hardly navigate Paris—and indeed many other cities around the world—without being assailed by reproductions in the form of tacky postcards and refrigerator magnets and posters on the walls of otherwise dreary bars, cafés, and dorm rooms. Borrowing from Japanese print techniques, Toulouse-Lautrec brought the Belle Époque to life in colorful stylization featuring flattened human images and large masses of color. Situated at the transition from late to post-Impressionism, he also readily adopted cropped perspective to emphasize detail and remove extraneous visual imagery. In vivid caricature and warm colors, the posters project a comforting image of a happier society, a carefree fin-de-siècle innocent of the horrors of the war-torn twentieth century.
One of the great challenges of a Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition, something the Norton has not attempted in forty-five years, is that his artwork is now almost nauseatingly commonplace.
A closer look, however, reminds us that Toulouse-Lautrec was working at the center of an arts culture in a frenzied state of social and political discord, and that his images, many of which were advertisements, have a downright seamy side, of which even the intern-curators confessed a lack of awareness until they had begun their work. La Troupe de Mademoiselle Églantine (1896), for example, depicts a row of four can-can dancers. Intended to draw audiences to a Montmartre dance hall, the poster tempts us to forget that the can-can was not cute, quaint, or folksy, but a moral outrage, since the kicks revealed the dancers’ bare vaginas to an absinthe-infused clientele (including Toulouse-Lautrec, who succumbed to alcoholism and syphilis at age thirty-six). Calls to ban the routine were frequent, and as long after as in 1959, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was outraged by even a more anodyne performance when he visited the Hollywood set of the film adaptation of Cole Porter’s musical Can-Can.
That sex should sell may come as no surprise, but a close look reveals that L’Artisan Moderne (1896) reduces the concept to prosaic levels. This advertisement for a furniture and interior decoration store does not hawk its wares directly, but places in the foreground a pouting blonde propped up in bed with her attentive poodle while a dashing young suitor in a white smock and natty yellow cravat approaches her carrying a tool box. The demoiselle’s horrified maid looks on. Only a keen observer would look at the small print along the lithograph’s bottom edge, which lists the establishment’s three Paris locations for the convenience of the contemporary shopper. Similarly, Débauche (1896) announces a catalog of artists’ prints for sale, but grabs the casual consumer’s attention with the erotic image of Toulouse-Lautrec’s friend Maxime Dethomas—an immensely tall man whose height served as foil to Toulouse-Lautrec’s dwarfism on the Montmartre scene—groping a well-endowed woman’s breast. One wonders how many prints from the advertised collection sold that season.
The less commercial Au Bal des Étudiants (1900), centered on a busty masked woman in a loud yellow costume, shows her being led by her suitor, whose gray suit and top hat are sketched in pencil. A closer look at the orchestra playing distantly behind them, however, reveals that he is not escorting her to the ball of the poster’s title, but rather leading her out of it. A hint of ruddiness on his devilishly smiling face depicts a man about town who has an idea of where his evening is headed.
In the realm of social discord, Reine de Joie (1892) shows a tarty courtesan kissing her fat protector at table. Far from a quasi-prurient scene of commodified romance, the lithograph was in fact publicity for a now-forgotten, virulently anti-Semitic novel of the same title by Victor Joze. Subtitled “Mores of the demi-monde,” its female protagonist, the tart in the image, carries on with the disreputable Baron de Rozenfeld, a thinly veiled caricature of the Jewish banking scion Baron Alphonse de Rothschild who exhibits every unpleasant stereotype that fueled the Dreyfus Affair and more appalling events beyond. Seen in that light, the lithograph loses its charm and reveals itself as a document of the anti-Semitic undercurrents flowing beneath all the gilded panache of the fin-de-siècle.
The better-known Divan Japonais (1893), another ad for a Montmartre nightspot, draws the sexual and political together by showing spectators in a popular café-concert. The angular, redheaded can-can dancer Jane Avril dominates the foreground dressed in severe black, clutching a closed fan like a dagger. Her escort is the almost aggressively blond and monocled anti-Semite Édouard Dujardin, a barely remembered figure who, unpleasant prejudices aside, succeeded in pioneering stream-of-consciousness prose and championing the works and ideas of Richard Wagner in France. The performer they are observing is cropped above the neck, leaving only her long black gloves to indicate that they are all figures of the night, a combination of decadent sexuality and political and artistic extremism that should give fright to any Xennial poster-hanger.