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