Updated: Oct 12, 2018
Impressions of Paris: Lautrec, Degas, Daumier, Atget by Jennifer Dean
The exhibition Impressions of Paris: Lautrec, Degas, Daumier, Atget was shown at the Monash Gallery of Art from 17th July until 20th September 2015. The exhibition featured more than 120 prints, posters and photographs drawn from the collection of the National Gallery of Australia. The exhibition focused on the work of artists Honoré-Victorin Daumier (1808–1879), Edgar Degas (1834–1917), Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864– 1901) and Eugène Atget (1857–1927), and "examined the role of each artist in the development of nineteenth century art in France- their influence and their originality." (Jane Kinsman, Senior Curator, International Prints, Drawings and Illustrated Books)
We realise the irony that the work of an artist considered a mere momentary trend by his revered Degas could in fact overwhelm his master’s presence
Impressions of old Paris that beckoned new art
One can understand the confusion of entering a gallery dedicated to the art of photography but instead finding mostly prints and posters… and I’m not referring to those of the photographic kind. Monash Gallery of Art, the self-proclaimed home of Australian photography is not an obvious location for the National Gallery of Australia’s Impressions of Paris: Lautrec, Degas, Daumier, Atget. Focused on the development of a ‘new art’ in nineteenth century Paris, this free exhibition features more than 120 lithographs and monotypes drawn entirely from the NGA collection.
Senior Curator Jane Kinsman brings to the forefront a rich examination of three key figures most noted for their contribution; Honore-Victorin Daumier (1808-1879), Edgar Degas (1834-1917) and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901). To bring relevance to MGA’s photographically inclined audience, Assistant Curator Emilie Owens has also included the photography of Eugene Atget (1857-1927). One can’t help but recognise the apparent after thought of Atget’s inclusion; his quiet works appear ‘tacked on’ to the offering. Despite this one time retitling, I would have liked to see the Father of documentary photography included within the official exhibition catalogue and education kit even if only as a separate insert. However, like many photographers today might empathise (and also those practicing in nineteenth century Paris for that matter!), we are grateful for his inclusion at least. A total of nineteen albumen prints by this revered yet sometimes-neglected pioneer of documentary photography can be found at the end of the exhibition.
Upon entering the first gallery space we are presented with the likeness of a hallowed place. It makes sense to begin browsing reverently; the low level lighting set against a backdrop of deep grey walls seems to beckon visitors to whisper. Quiet contemplation of Daumier’s outrageously loud and irreverent humour however seems paradoxical. Yet perhaps our inclination to shield our laughter is purposed. Daumier’s intended audience initially acquired his caricatures by subscription so it seems plausible that his work was often appreciated in quiet. His penchant for political satire pushed legal boundaries. The publishing of Gargantua (1831) within the weekly satirical journal La Caricature led to Daumier’s six months incarceration. Depicting a bulging yet relentlessly hungry King Louis Phillippe greedily consuming baskets of money taken from the starving masses, Daumier’s resentful caricature continues with the King defecating honours from his almighty throne to his favourite politicians waiting below. One can understand why the King wasn’t impressed.
Such political censorship saw Daumier’s attention turned to ‘the emblematic type of the self-satisfied bourgeois’. Scanning the gallery walls the repetition of such characters becomes increasingly apparent, however none so much as actor Henri Monnier’s ultimate Parisian bourgeois creation, Joseph Prudhomme. A ‘pot-bellied, tight-fisted bore’, Mr. Prudhomme Philantrope (1856) represents the ‘pompous incompetence’ of superficial materialism so apparent amongst Parisian society at the time.
Exiting this chapel of reverent irreverence, we fall out into a larger, brighter and breezier space. Instantly we are met with works of vivid colour. Bold frames with ornate features; works no longer bound in simple plain frame unity like Daumier’s work previously. Lautrec’s Moulin Rouge: La Goulue (1891) as described by his publisher friend Thadee Natanson truly hits you like a ‘fist in the face’. Arguably the most recognised work on display, in the midst of her energetic leg raising chahut, La Goule reveals her frilly petticoats, bloomers and stockings provocatively in dance to a silhouetted audience of captivated gentry. It’s hard to imagine the disapproval of Lautrec’s father upon seeing his son’s artistic depiction posted all over the streets of Paris. It was after all this advertising mural which in fact established his reputation as a rising star.
Continuing around the exhibition, if not for Danseuse en quatrieme position (c 1885) or as translated for visitors, Dancer in 4th position; one might happen to pass the wall dedicated to Impressionist Edgar Degas. Such brazen eye candy as Lautrec’s colourful posters bid ‘look at me!’ from almost every direction. It is here that we realise the irony that the work of an artist considered a mere momentary trend by his revered Degas could in fact overwhelm his master’s presence. However it is Degas’ famous preoccupation with ballerina’s that draws our curious eyes close to appreciate his mastery of movement and form. His chalk and pastel sketch of a ballerina in pose enlists our humbled awe. Moving onwards we sight Pauline and Virginie Cardinal chatting with some admirers (1876-77). Two petite ballerinas appear cornered. Flanked by a group of male aristocrats, a suggestion of wolf pack mentality amongst supposed gentlemen, with one keeping watch for an approaching female guardian. Kinsman’s careful curation begins now to reveal the links between Degas and Daumier. Daumier’s draughtsmanship skills, radical compositions and penchant for social commentary increasingly becomes evidenced within Degas’ works on display.
Dwarfed in comparison to the assertiveness of Lautrec’s grand posters yet somewhat consoled by Degas’ similarly sized monotypes and sketches, Atget’s haunting captures of Paris on the cusp of modernisation seem disconnected. Perhaps it is his revelation of the ‘end of an era’ that Owens sought to reflect upon; the remnants of a bourgeoisie society so unabashedly documented by Daumier, Degas and Lautrec. Atget’s architectural photographs reveal the emptiness of once lived places. Hotel de Fieubet, quai des Celestins, façade (c 1898-1905) presents a bold ornate entrance to perhaps a once popular venue for Parisian aristocracy. Now sat forgotten and crumbling, its windows and doors appear long ago boarded permanently shut. Likewise, the once grand staircase of Hotel du Marechal de Tallard, 78 rue des Archives (c 1898-1905) now too stands empty. Condemned as witnesses to an eternal silence, the once admired statues towering above remain oblivious as ladders left resting against a ground floor wall imply abandonment as equally as the possibility of approaching change.
Unlike his contemporaries, Atget never intended an audience; his motivation was historical recording. While connections between Daumier, Degas and Lautrec are explored, Atget’s connection is without depth. We soon exit without understanding that like Daumier, Atget unwittingly became instrumental for a new art also, the art of documentary photography.