(Image: Felix Vallotton, La Raison Probante (Intimacies) (1897-8), woodcut)
Fleur Roos Rosa de Carvalho, Prints in Paris 1900. From Elite to the Street, Van Gogh Museum/Mercatorfonds, hardback, 192pp, 200 col. illus., €45, ISBN 978 94 6230 169 6 (English edition, French, Dutch and German editions available)
Vincent Van Gogh loved English prints from the popular press, French Realist art, woodcut prints (especially Doré’s wood engravings and other book illustrations) and classic Dutch prints. Both he and his brother Theo collected prints and corresponded on the subject at length, as Theo was in the art trade and had access to most commercially available prints. Although Van Gogh made only a few etchings and one lithograph, he was an avid scrutiniser of prints by other artists; he would surely have found much to admire in this current selection of the best prints made in the decade following his death. The current exhibition Prints in Paris 1900. From Elite to the Street (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 3 March-11 June 2017; Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum, Tokyo, 17 October 2017-17 January 2018) includes some of the 1,800 prints in the Van Gogh Museum collection, showing some of the highlights of printmaking from the period 1890-1905. The collection includes prints owned by Vincent and Theo and prints acquired by the museum recently to form an overview of art of Van Gogh’s era. This large-format catalogue documents not only the eye-catching posters of the era but also prints more specifically made as works of art, including colour and monochrome lithographs, woodcuts, etchings, drypoints and mixed techniques.
The world of prints in 1900 was vast, ranging from common illustrations or decorations in posters, books, tracts and other printed matter up to the most sophisticated and considered artistic productions, produced in editions of as low as a handful of proofs. Good examples of renowned prints of the past (Dürer, Rembrandt and other Old Masters) commanded high prices and were collected by private owners and public museums. To a lesser extent recent and living masters of the craft were also appreciated but the market was relatively limited in size and knowledge about prints generally was not great. In this catalogue, print scholar Fleur Roos Rosa de Carvalho discusses the role of journals devoted to prints and print collecting, asserting that that they played a significant part in raising the profile of printmaking as an art form and informing the readers about historical and modern prints. Writers and readers had in-depth knowledge of prints and were avid aficionados, most with collections of their own. The journals intended to act as guides for collectors, making recommendations and assessing reputations, and were not mass-market publications.
“Virtually all the champions of original printmaking – Charles Baudelaire, Philippe Burty and Henri Beraldi in the case of etching, and Roger Marx and André Mellerio for lithography – were keen to protect the private print [as opposed to the public poster] from the misunderstanding and vulgarity of the masses. Baudelaire, for instance, considered that the intimate outpourings of the artistic etching were too ‘personal’ and ‘aristocratic’ to be shared beyond the circle of artists and collectors.”
This private character of prints was a matter of practicality – for reasons of conservation and size, prints were usually in books or portfolios and could only be viewed by one or two persons at a time – and a matter of content, as the art was often informal, intimate or erotic, and as such less suitable for general public consumption. The notion of exclusivity played to the intellectual vanity and artistic discernment of collectors and critics, it also assisted dealers in the marketing of hard-to-acquire items. Attempts to broaden the appeal of prints met some resistance from inside the artist’s-print circle.
Things were changing though. By 1890 the development of metal-plate, offset and motorised lithography had inaugurated an age of high-quality colour posters on large sheets, in large print runs and relatively low in cost. An array of large colourful posters dazzled Parisians daily on a scale historically unprecedented. The relative cheapness of lithographic printing meant that prints flooded every area of life, from menus and maps to sheet music. It transformed image production and distribution both in the everyday commercial field and the world of the arts, though lithography remained only one of the numerous printmaking methods.
Posters had a lower status than prints made by methods most traditionally linked to artists, such as etching and aquatint, though some artists (including Toulouse-Lautrec) appreciated the effect of posters as much as drawings and paintings. There was vigorous debate among artists, critics and collectors as to the value of the new methods of reprographics. For those buyers who required the cachet of fine art collected posters avant-la-lettre (before the words had been added) or bought proofs from special editions printed on high-quality paper. The battle of High Art and Low Culture had begun earlier than this and can be seen in the critical responses to the subject choices of Impressionist pictures (though paintings of the common people attending dances had existed at least as far back as Bruegel’s paintings of peasants). Here the problem was not the subjects – which did not endear the pictures to the hearts of traditionalists – but the method itself, which was considered too new and too distanced from the artist’s hand to be considered fine art. The demands of multi-plate printing required collaboration between artist and master printmaker, which diluted the authenticity that some collectors craved, and some prints were so distanced from the artist that truly the prints are more “after” an artist than “by” that artist. The fact that the posters were essentially examples of vulgar commercialism – advertising venues and products – put them beyond the pale for many commentators. While some acclaimed colour posters as a new democratic form of art, others complained it was strident visual pollution that assaulted the eye.
Van Gogh died just too early (1890) to experience the boom in artist’s colour lithography. Over the period 1890-1905 the Post-Impressionist, Symbolist, Nabi and Art Nouveau artists made a plethora of prints now considered classics of French Modernism. Many of the prints in this exhibition were a contemporary French response to Japanese colour woodcuts, which began to be collected and appreciated in the 1880s. Japanese prints had originally found their way to France as waste-paper used to wrap imported ceramics; only when a few curious French art collectors expressed an interest in the strange images did anyone realise that there was a potential market in France for Japanese woodcuts. Van Gogh greatly admired Japanese prints and collected them. He painted some and included them in the background of his portraits. The compositional devices of the prints, such as clearly defined areas of bold colour, shaped the direction of his late painting style. Japanese influence is obvious in the prints of the Post-Impressionists and Nabi artists.
(Image: Jules Chéret, La Diaphane. Poudre de Riz (1890), colour lithograph)
Jules Chéret (1836-1932) set the standard for colour posters and the general standard was high. His example inspired a number of established fine artists to poster design and some of the poster artists (especially the Art Nouveau designers) reached the level of classic art. Chéret commonly used elegant young female figures in radically simplified designs with strong colours, which intended to be seen from a distance. So well-known did this female type become that similar female figures were called “chérettes”. His designs influenced the painter Seurat and he was called “the Fragonard of the street” by critic Roger Marx. Chéret was awarded the Légion d’honneur in 1890 and ascended to the firmament of the French artistic pantheon.
The proliferation of posters and the craze for collecting them were commented on in foreign guidebooks to Paris. Dealers and collectors began to hoard the best examples of fine posters. Many would follow bill-stickers at a distance and once he was out of sight they would peel away the still-wet poster. Others bribed bill-stickers for unpasted copies. There sprang up a minor trade in reduced prints that were of more manageable sizes and proofs signed by the artists, though purists disapproved. Specialists offered to mount posters on canvas; others designed giant portfolios to accommodate the posters. Posters became chic additions to the modern home, adding boldness and colour to a room. Carvahlo mentions the elaborate and costly library of Robert de Montesquiou, which was designed to accommodate rare books and portfolios of prints; in the process of creation, the library evolved into a work of art.
This exhibition displays prints by artists who were stars of their era but are less esteemed today. Eugène Carrière’s portraits in monochrome chiaroscuro were immensely influential in their time. Carrière was considered a modern Rembrandt but today his smoky portrait heads appear at most mildly atmospheric and unremarkable.
(Image: Théophile Alexandre Steinlen, Le Chat Noir (1896), colour lithograph)
Likewise, Théophile Alexandre Steinlen was acclaimed as an artist comparable to Dickens, with his domestic scenes and his strand of social realism. Steinlen was considered a campaigning artist highly engaged by the issues of deprivation and social reform. (The fact that he was solely a graphic artist meant that his supporters described his art as truly democratic because the originals were not in museums but pasted on street corners.) Today it is his colour posters of At La Bodinière (1894) and Le Chat Noir (1896) that appeal and the monochrome social satires raise barely a flicker of interest. It is hard to comprehend that hosts of artists (including Picasso) were under his sway in 1900.
(Image: Théophile Alexandre Steinlen, The Exodus (1915), lithograph (not in catalogue))
The star of the catalogue is Toulouse-Lautrec, whose best prints are included, with and without lettering. Other artists included are Carrière, Chéret, Steinlen, Odilon Redon, Pierre Bonnard, Paul Gauguin, Edouard Vuillard, Félicien Rops, Maurice Denis and more obscure figures. Félix Vallotton (1865-1925) has undergone a recent revival that has included a large retrospective held in Paris, 2013-4. Vallotton’s art straddles different styles: Nabi, Intimiste and Art Deco. His woodcuts Intimacies (1897-8) are brilliant reductions of domestic vignettes to simple woodcuts deploying large areas of solid black or white, decorative patterns and arabesque lines. What is happening in the scenes (which are independent and only connected thematically) is unclear. There are intimations of infidelity, seduction, estrangement and traumatic revelation, which undercut the comfortable bourgeois settings. The suite is Vallotton’s greatest achievement, frequently reproduced and rightly beloved. It manages to be concise yet enigmatic and the suite of ten prints is reproduced in full here. The cancellation print is rather elegant. Cancellation prints are usually single prints of the defaced plate, demonstrating that the plate has been rendered unusable after the edition is printed and that the edition is therefore limited. In the case of Intimacies the cancellation plate is a montage of details of each plate sawed from its block and printed together.
The range of the catalogue and the broadly representative nature of the collection make this title a useful general reference work for French prints of this period (including a timeline, bibliography and index). The mixture of iconic posters alongside lesser known pieces, some by artists almost forgotten, is successful though it just scratches the surface. The author discusses the participation of the Nabis in the production of staging and programmes for Symbolist dramatic productions and other topics related to printmaking. The inclusion of examples of paintings, drawings, photography, furniture and bookbinding (some of which are rare loans from private collections) allows the curator to situate printmaking in a continuum of visual culture of the period. The printing and binding is excellent and the size of the book allows the dramatic prints to come across strongly.
7 March 2017