In collaboration with the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, The Phillips Collection has assembled a special exhibition that brings together some of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s finest printed works. Running Feb. 4 to April 30, “Toulouse-Lautrec Illustrates the Belle Époque” explores the period’s printing technique, a contribution of enormous importance to the history of arts and performance. Through some of Toulouse-Lautrec’s best works, the exhibition unearths the spirit of nineteenth-century Parisian spectacle.
One of the pre-eminent painters of the post-impressionism movement, alongside contemporaries like Van Gogh and Cézanne, de Toulouse-Lautrec was an accomplished printmaker as well. Lithography printing, using chemically treated limestone plates and oil-based inks, underwent a major revolution that coincided with Toulouse-Lautrec’s arrival in Paris. He embraced these new techniques, creating works with vivid color schemes, significant symbolism and dynamic representations of individuals through his use of light.
One of the highlighted pieces of the exhibit, “La Goulue,” exhibits these artistic strengths. In the piece, the artist depicts one of the Moulin Rouge’s star dancers, after whom the print is titled. The work, meant as an advertisement for the Montmartre entertainment spot, contrasts her colorful, lively figure with the standstill, umbral depiction of her partner, Valentin le Déssossé. In depicting known historical figures, there is an element of nostalgia and legacy added to the works displayed. Visitors can enjoy a special period of history through the eyes of a visionary artist.
A noteworthy element of the exhibit is the glimpse it offers into the way Toulouse–Lautrec depicted his primarily female subjects. Seeking to explore this element and foster engaging conversation, on March 16th, The Phillips Collection featured Cristen Conger – podcast host, writer and speaker on women, gender and sexuality studies – to direct a dialogue exploring Toulouse-Lautrec’s depictions of women in which she compared and contrasted them to those of today.
Conger began by sharing her experience studying Toulouse-Lautrec’s work in lithography during the last few months. She explained that her goal was to hold “a conversation about how we can look at these pieces today and take lessons for how we perceive and produce female celebrity in the public gaze.” Her “big question,” she remarked, was “whether celebrity can overpower sexism,” along with how women depictions have transformed over time and current sexuality and gender dynamics. She explored the historical parallel between Hollywood views on feminism with those of Toulouse-Lautrec, who “has also been described as super feminist.” However, she pointed out that there are “very reminiscent images and sexualization of the female body” that are “produced very specifically through the male gaze” in 21st-century, Hollywood feminism and 20th century France.
Conger highlighted important differences between depictions of female celebrity and sexuality as “produced through the male gaze” and perspectives of female celebrities who have full ownership of their images. She warned that the same issues of objectification and marginalization exist even when women take their own pictures and create their own images.
She further stressed “the relation of women to themselves” with regards to makeup, personal embellishment and preparation for pictures, thereby demonstrating that women are still entangled with maintaining certain appearances. Conger drew attention to Toulouse-Lautrec’s staging of the differences between the “made-up” women and the bare one without glamour or fabrication. Several pieces in the exhibit seem to explore this idea in the form of prints depicting dancers and performers getting ready or lounging casually in dressing rooms or backstage without expecting the gaze of a man.
Conger maintains that there are many similarities, not only between modern depictions, but also between male and female perspectives.
“Men look at women, and women watch themselves being looked at,” Conger said.
According to Conger, most of the works by Toulouse-Lautrec portray women who fail to challenge the external glance directed at them. Walking through the exhibit, visitors see prints of women looking at themselves. Only one piece — one not painted by Toulouse-Lautrec — seems to illustrate a woman looking back. The others feature women who appear to be aware of an external gaze yet accept the observation without reaction. Curiously, at this time in history, equality was increasing due to increased female involvement in the workforce. Therefore, these pieces seem to contradict that movement and point to a man’s world that is “still figuring it out, ” in the words of Conger.
Throughout the conversation, Conger acknowledged that while this dialogue did not cover the full spectrum of perceptions and interactions within the realms of gender and sexuality, it opened the door for more conversations to be held. Conger considered this ongoing dialogue of paramount importance in a world that has progressively expanded past “very broad-brush hetero-cis normativity.”
Through the development of different forums, both in life and online, female celebrities seem to have more control over what they say and do. However, Conger pondered whether the stakes are now higher, with controversial self-portrayals continuing to result in significant backlash. With aid from the audience, Conger developed the question of whether some of these new depictions, trying to separate themselves from those of the Belle Époque by using celebrity to overcome sexism, are truly doing so.
“Has anyone done it?” she asked the crowd, which was left in wonder and reflection.
Pointing to the stark contrast between continual social revolutions, especially those concerning empowerment and equality, and mass culture’s enduring consensus on beauty, elegance and trance-like attraction, Conger highlights similar features present in the work of Toulouse-Lautrec. As the painter’s works began to popularize and the voices of the women portrayed in them began to strengthen, a double-standard remained, rendering Toulouse-Lautrec’s works all the more intriguing and relevant today.