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Eternal allure of French poster art on view at Driehaus Museum

Toulouse-Lautrec's "Moulin Rouge: La Goulue." (Courtesy of the Richard H. Driehaus Museum)

Something wonderful happened on the streets of Paris during La Belle Epoque (The Beautiful Era), that period of prosperity and technological and cultural innovation that came on the heels of the Impressionist art movement, and thrived from the late 1870s until the nightmare that was World War I.

‘L’AFFICHOMANIA: THE PASSION FOR FRENCH POSTERS’
When: Feb. 11, 2017 – Jan. 7, 2018
Where: The Richard H. Driehaus Museum, 40 E. Erie
Tickets: $20
Info: www.DriehausMuseum.org

While the Italian Renaissance had its magnificent frescoes, and the 1960s had its iconic rock and roll album covers that were frequently plastered to the walls of college dormitories, Paris had poster art. It was a new art form that burgeoned in conjunction with the development of color lithography or “chromolithography,” (an industrial process that caught the imagination of a number of formidable artists), the relaxation of printing and publishing laws, and the rise of advertising for both entertainment events and consumer goods. And these Belle Epoque posters caught hold of the public imagination, as well as the attention of art collectors, with a feverish intensity.

With their brilliant colors, gorgeously choreographed sense of movement, and exuberant portrayals of women clearly experimenting with a new degree of freedom, this work has retained its appeal for more than a century. So there is reason to celebrate the arrival of  “L’Affichomania: The Passion for French Posters,” a new exhibition opening Feb. 11 at Chicago’s Richard H. Driehaus Museum.

The show features 45 works by the five grand masters of the art — Jules Chéret, Eugène Grasset, Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Alphonse Mucha. And here is perhaps the greatest surprise of all: The entire exhibition is drawn from the renowned collection of Driehaus himself — the Chicago-bred businessman and philanthropist whose passion for the Gilded Age and Art Nouveau era is embodied in the landmark 1887 Samuel M. Nickerson Mansion he restored and turned into a museum.

Alphonse Mucha's "Princess Hyacinth." (Photo: Courtesy of the Richard H. Driehaus Museum)

Alphonse Mucha’s “Princess Hyacinth.” (Photo: Courtesy of the Richard H. Driehaus Museum)

As Driehaus tells the story in the introduction to the handsome catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, he purchased his first poster (by Jules Cheret, considered “the father of the poster craze”) at a Chicago gallery in the 1970s, the very moment when interest in such posters was enjoying a renaissance. He and a friend were planning to open a restaurant/saloon and as Driehaus explains it: “I was still building my career in the equities market…  and was looking for ‘imagery on a budget’.”

“This is now among the top private collection of French poster art in the country,” said Jeannine Falino, curator of the exhibition. “Most of the works are full-size originals, as they would have been seen on the street, although many collectors of the period began bribing the poster hangers in order to get the posters before they were ever glued to the wall. And some collectors worked with the printing houses so they could get the posters before any words were added to the image, and these became among the most prized pieces of all. The printers recognized yet another market, too, and began making smaller versions of the posters, some of which appeared in periodicals.”

Although for years primarily black-and-white print notices had been affixed to everything from the city’s public urinals to designated walls, with the advent of these art posters came specially designed kiosks dubbed “street furniture.” And it was there that you could find richly colored posters advertising everything from cigarette papers, sterilized milk and bicycles, to shows at the Folies-Bergeres and the Moulin Rouge, to tributes to celebrities of the day, from dancer Jane Avril to actress Sarah Bernhardt.

Each of the five masters of the medium will be featured in one of the period galleries located on the second floor of the Driehaus Museum, with the third floor devoted entirely to posters heralding performances.

It was Cheret who harnessed the techniques of chromolithography, formerly a commercial medium used for reproductions, and brought them into the realm of fine art. (Among his subjects, who appear caught in mid-flight, was Loie Fuller, the early performance artist who grew up in a Chicago suburb, and his famous poster of her is part of this show.)

Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen created work for a wide variety of magazines, journals, and printed media, and is perhaps best known for his poster for Le Chat Noir, a bohemian outpost considered the first cabaret in Montmartre. Eugène Grasset, who was influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, was a supremely gifted colorist whose posters often suggested the quality of stained glass.

Needing little introduction are Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who immortalized the performers and prostitutes of the Montmartre district, and Alphonse Mucha, the Czech artist who defined the Art Nouveau graphic style, and celebrated both real and mythic women (most notably Bernhardt) by adorning their windswept locks with halos and garlands.

As Driehaus notes, we are fortunate “to experience that certain je ne sais quoi while strolling the exhibition galleries like the Parisians who once encountered these posters along the boulevards, and in favorite bars, restaurants, and clubs, and to savor forever the excitement of Paris during the glorious Belle Epoque period.”

Theophile-Alexandre Steinlen's advertisement for the serial novel, "La Traite des Blanches" ("The White Slave Trade"). (Photo: Courtesy of the Richard H. Driehaus Museum)

Theophile-Alexandre Steinlen’s advertisement for the serial novel, “La Traite des Blanches” (“The White Slave Trade”). (Photo: Courtesy of the Richard H. Driehaus Museum)