Toulouse Lautrec – La Ville lumière

Until the end of September, the Royal Palace of Monza hosts the exhibition Toulouse Lautrec. La Ville lumière. It includes prints and drawings by the great French artist Henri de Toulouse Lautrec in the buzzing context of fin-de-siecle Paris. Through a broad selection of about 150 works, the display evidences the connections between art, publishing, and advertisement. Moreover, it presents the artist’s short but intense career through the personalities that he has portrayed over the years. While the choice of not including any work by other artists may be deemed questionable, the show succeeds in explaining the complexities of his prints and their inextricable relationship with modern Paris.

Ambassadeurs poster

The exhibition takes place on the second floor of the palace. It occupies a series of beautifully decorated 18th-century rooms, whose stucco-covered ceilings offer a peculiar counterpart to the essential contours of Toulouse Lautrec’s figures. The juxtaposition is overall pleasant and the interior provides a beautiful frame for the works, which are arranged in a loose thematic order. Some areas are reserved to specific characters depicted by the artist, such as the cabaret singer Aristide Bruant, while others cover specific spaces within the Parisian galaxy, with a room dedicated to brothels. This creates a varied visit path and makes the experience enjoyably diverse. However, it is also difficult to pinpoint a clear argument behind the display, which appears at times dispersive.

La Vache enragée

Throughout his life, Toulouse Lautrec practiced several techniques. He was a painter (although none of his painting features in this show) as well as a prolific draughtsman. Moreover, he made lithographs, etchings, and drypoint prints which constitute the core of La Ville lumière. Visitors encounter technical explanations of these techniques, which are helpful in order to understand the subtleties of the printing process. In one case, a lithograph stone is even placed next to one of the finished impressions. This is particularly important since it allows the public to see Toulouse Lautrec’s works in light of their complex execution.

Ballroom poster

Drawings and prints are often considered utilitarian components of an artist’s production. The former are preparatory tools while the latter were and still are employed to reach a broader public. However, La Ville lumière tries to present them as independent art forms. The quality of Toulouse Lautrec’s creations certainly supports this argument, even though the lack of a clear narrative thread makes this point weaker than it could have been. Overall, the exhibition is worth visiting and offers a remarkable snapshot of Paris through its brothels, theatres, and ballrooms. This said, there are elements in the display which could have been emphasised more so as to offer a deeper and more cohesive viewing experience.

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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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