An 1896 poster commissioned to promote a photographer named Paul Sescau isn’t the largest or the most dramatic lithograph in the Phillips Collection’s exhibition “Toulouse-Lautrec Illustrates the Belle-Epoque,” but it is one of the most poignant. It shows a fashionable woman in a red dress, with her back turned to a male photographer, whose head is entirely hidden under the large-format camera hood.
This is, among other things, an exhibition about the gaze, the male scrutiny of the female form, and the consumer’s hungry visual consumption of novelty, entertainment and the freakish parade of human eccentricity. The photographer hidden in this image may be Sescau, but it might just as well be Toulouse-Lautrec. The French artist was terribly self-conscious about his appearance — he had a genetic disorder that left him with very short legs — and that self-consciousness may have inspired some of his intense interest and identification with the Parisian demimonde of actors, prostitutes and cabaret performers. Long before Christopher Isherwood wrote, “I am a camera with its shutter open,” Toulouse-Lautrec was recording the invention of a new urban social milieu, in which everyone was always performing, angling for attention, seeking the spotlight.
Some of the posters in this exhibition were commissioned by the performers themselves, as self-advertisement. And among Toulouse-Lautrec’s many talents was the ability to divine a performer’s trademark affectation or gesture, and give it succinct visual form. He helped brand the angle of a dancer’s leg in the famous poster advertising La Goulue’s performances at the Moulin Rouge, and the red scarf and imperious sneer of the singer and cafe owner Aristide Bruant.
The camera played a role in this, too, with images of performers circulating on postcards and other media. It also unsettled the usual way of seeing things, with the snapshot framing life in blunt, confrontational, surprising and sometimes contorted ways. Life wasn’t composed within the neat frame of the painted picture, but captured with strange angles, with bodies half in and half out of the field of vision. But with an eye informed by the camera, the master of the lithograph could do all that, and more, too. He could condense everything to essentials, and then put this message into public space, bright and big and irresistible to the eye. Just as the lithograph technique reduces images to the basics of line and planes of color, Toulouse-Lautrec distills celebrity to the one thing that always matters: the ability to be instantly recognized by everyone.
The exhibition includes about 100 works, some of them large-scale and now iconic posters, but also partially printed works that demonstrate the lithograph technique, and smaller works that circulated in book form. The work is owned by an anonymous European collector who has focused not just on highlights of the artist’s printed oeuvre, but little-known works, and material that gives insight into his formal technique.
Toulouse-Lautrec Illustrates the Belle Époque Through April 30 at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW. Call 202-387-2151 or visit phillipscollection.org.