Posters and prints from 19th- cen­tury France re­main em­blem­atic of their era, writes Christo­pher Allen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

EDGAR De­gas was an ex­cep­tion­ally fine and orig­i­nal print­maker, so it is ap­pro­pri­ate that the Na­tional Gallery of Aus­tralia should ac­com­pany its sur­vey De­gas: Mas­ter of French Art with a sec­ond ex­hi­bi­tion, of prints in later 19th-cen­tury France. The prints are fas­ci­nat­ing and tes­tify to the riches of the NGA col­lec­tion and to the in­ter­est of this field of col­lect­ing. It is pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive to ac­quire im­por­tant pic­tures by the prin­ci­pal painters of this pe­riod, but prints re­main ac­ces­si­ble and are an ex­cel­lent way of ex­tend­ing the cov­er­age of a time and its so­cial and aes­thetic sen­si­bil­ity.

Al­though this is true of any point in the five cen­turies or so of the his­tory of print­mak­ing, it is es­pe­cially true of the 19th cen­tury, be­cause of the vast ex­pan­sion in me­dia and tech­niques and in uses and av­enues of pub­li­ca­tion. From fine art prints to il­lus­tra­tions, car­toons in news­pa­pers and posters for night­clubs, the range of work is ex­traor­di­nary, and the artists — as dis­tinct from com­mer­cial de­sign­ers — may be in­volved across the whole spec­trum.

Toulouse-Lautrec is the best-known ex­am­ple of a fine painter who also made prints in­tended for quite dis­tinct mar­kets, and with cor­re­spond­ingly dif­fer­ent sen­si­bil­i­ties. In his fa­mous poster of Jane Avril ( 1893), de­lib­er­ate at­ten­tion-get­ting vul­gar­ity — the dou­ble-bass player’s hairy knuck­les on the neck of his in­stru­ment — is com­bined with aes­thetic re­fine­ment and the whole is turned into an art nou­veau de­sign.

In Elles ( 1896), a se­ries of lith­o­graphs of cour­te­sans in­tended for a mar­ket of col­lec­tors, the world of the demi-monde is evoked with play­ful sub­tlety. The ti­tle page of the al­bum is par­tic­u­larly un­der­stated: a woman in a chemise, with her back to us, lets down her hair, while a top hat on a chair in the fore­ground in­vites the viewer to take the place of the gen­tle­man caller.

As al­ways with French art of the 19th cen­tury, the viewer must be aware of the po­lit­i­cal back­ground. One of the lega­cies of the French Revo­lu­tion was the frac­tur­ing of po­lit­i­cal le­git­i­macy and there­fore chronic in­sta­bil­ity. In Eng­land lib­eral democ­racy evolved pro­gres­sively and gov­ern­ment re­mained dis­tinct from the monar­chy as the sym­bolic form of the state; in France gov­ern­ment and state had been merged and both were the ob­jects of tus­sles be­tween repub­li­cans, dic­ta­tors, monar­chists and even com­mu­nists.

The his­tory of France in the 19th cen­tury is one of timid monar­chies over­thrown by mere ri­ots, which repub­li­can regimes — with a firmer sense of their own right to gov­ern — would ruth­lessly ex­tin­guish; dic­ta­tors in turn seized power from re­publics; and re­stored re­publics were un­der­mined by cor­rup­tion and im­ma­ture party pol­i­tics.

In the Can­berra ex­hi­bi­tion, the at­ten­tive viewer will sense the dif­fer­ent mood of works

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