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'Posters of Paris' makes you long for days of artful ads

Posted 8:01am on Saturday, Nov. 03, 2012

There is nothing not to like about "Posters of Paris: Toulouse-Lautrec and His Contemporaries," now on view at the Dallas Museum of Art.

This exhibition of single-sheet advertisements that blanketed the buildings of Paris in the late 1800s is a spectacular display of the vibrant public art that launched the careers of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jules Chéret, Pierre Bonnard and Alphonse Mucha.

The DMA displays the posters in dark-walled galleries under low light because of their fragility, and it almost makes them seem like tomb frescoes. This is the polar opposite of their original mounting, when they were pasted in multiples, in rows as high as the poster-paster could reach and as many as would fit on the building exterior. Their intense colors were sun-savaged, but Paris walls were alive with swirling dancers, singers and thespians hawking themselves or common products.

The advertisements, some more than 7 feet tall, were meant to be ephemeral, but the vibrantly colored artworks with famous faces paired with salacious innuendo were embraced so enthusiastically by the Parisians that posters became trophies to collect. Savvy printmakers recognized a retail opportunity and expanded their print runs to include smaller residential-size editions and runs that did not include the typography. Poster art became prized for its affordability and its contemporary themes. No matter that it was all made in the service of advertising -- the simple images of celebrities and the scant sales pitches found a ready market, one that survives to this day.

If there is a problem with these posters, it is what they spawned. The exhibition should also come with a spoiler alert: "Viewing 'Posters of Paris' can cause remorse and dissatisfaction."

These posters are the foundation stock of the current graphic displays that fill news racks, websites and outdoor advertising and assault our visual landscape.

What began as come-hithers to Parisian bistros and cabarets with large images of celebrities and a few well-placed words to their location -- Toulouse-Lautrec's famous ad for Aristide Bruant's appearance at Ambassadeurs for example -- has devolved into magazine covers with celebrities and their amazing weight loss or regrettable weight gain, failing marriages or fashion faux pas; billboards that offer quick medical fixes to a lifetime of bad choices; and an undulating sea of signage for fast-food places and petroleum services.

The difference between the come-ons of more than a century ago is that the old versions are delightfully sophisticated and subtle, but the contemporary ones are revolting with their cacophony of assaultive typography, poorly designed graphics and blatant entreaties.

This is hardly the fault of Lautrec and his peers; they showed admirable restraint that was occasionally tinged with hyperbolic joy.

The standouts in the exhibition are the Toulouse-Lautrecs, which is why he solos in the exhibition title. Although he only made 30 posters during his short lifetime (he died at 36), there are 17 in the show organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum. His reductionist depictions of crowds shown only in silhouette but identifiable by their hat styles, the phallic jutting of string instruments under the dancer's legs, and the ribald social intercourse between entertainers and their most ardent admirers were massively influential.

Jules Chéret's posters of dancer Loïe Fuller, with her flying scarves, for the Folies-Bergère and Alphonse Mucha's highly romanticized posters of Sarah Bernhardt for the Theatre de la Renaissance became signature signage for the venues, the women and the artists.

Mucha's posters for common products, such a cigarette rolling papers and bicycles, featured glorious women with swirling rivers of hair and only a suggestion of actual product.

Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen was the YouTube cat man of his day. His works often incorporated charming felines. It didn't seem to matter what the product was -- as long as there was the inclusion of a cat, the poster was sure to get noticed. Three adorable felines are seen begging like dogs in his poster for sterilized milk.

The products that were hawked were pedestrian -- kerosene, sardines, oil, ink, liquor, cough drops -- but everything could be paired with a celebrity or anonymous beauty positively giddy with delight at using the "extra white deodorized kerosene." The result was pure poetry, or, in the case of more humorous characterizations, at least prompted a good guffaw.

This is not the case now. There is little poetry to be seen in our public advertising, and the romp through the DMA galleries makes that all too clear. If you miss the point, it becomes evident on the drive home, when the only artistic expression of note is a string of boxcars bearing exuberant tags. Among the hundreds of billboards and monumental signs, only the graffiti looked good.

Gaile Robinson is the Star-Telegram art and design critic, 817-390-7113

Twitter: @gailerobinson

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