Lautrec’s posters left a major mark on the collective unconscious and continue to inspire fascination today. Without them, who would remember la Goulue, Jane Avril, Yvette Guilbert, May Belfort, May Milton, Caudieux the humorist and many others today?
Lautrec was to enlighten the world for evermore on fleeting nightlife. Far from limiting himself to the world of the stage show, Lautrec would make posters for book covers, such as the “Babylone d’Allemagne” (the German Babylon), for certain artists, as with Sescau’s photography, or for the world of cycling as with “La chaîne Simpson” (The Simpson chain). The indispensable element of each poster was that it should have an impact.
Many important artists have devoted themselves to this technique. Let us remember Daumier, Chéret and Steinlein, who used the same methods for their paintings and posters. Lautrec knew how to innovate the poster, with his sharp eye and sense of the synthetic along with his dazzling, and above all inventive, technique. “Never again will we see the marvel of the end of the last century, which saw the walls of Paris sparkling with Lautrec’s posters”, states Thadée Natanson who runs the “Revue Blanche” (White Review) with her brother. The “Revue Blanche” and the “Mercure de France” (Mercury of France) shared the task of making their newspapers a forum for the avant-garde for the following ten years. This forum acted as a springboard for Lautrec’s work and for many other artists. Already interested in prints, Lautrec made the natural move towards posters, guided by Pierre Bonnard whose poster “France Champagne”, 1891, had met with recent success. “With Lautrec and his posters, we see art taking to the streets”, declares Thadée Natanson.
The real phenomenon for the history of art lay in the public’s infatuation with Lautrec’s posters: perhaps for the first time, the public went straight in for an art form that was considered avant-garde. A number of artists, critics and collectors had nothing but disgust for Lautrec’s unusual compositions, with pictorial processes such as their garish faces, deliberately distorted to be more expressive. The “Moulin Rouge” poster was the first modern poster, a real work of art that was sought after by collectors straight away, leading them to go as far as tearing them from the walls they had been displayed on. In “l’Oeuvre” (The Work) (1886) Zola shows young painters insulting the Fine Arts Academy as a “worn, three colour poster”, advertising the circus, has them crying out in admiration on the rue de la Seine. Félix Fénéan, in the anarchist review “Le père peinard” (The easy father), urges readers to tear down Paris’ most beautiful posters to “get hold of paintings more trendy than the juicy crusts of liquorice that are the jubilation of arseholes of shame”.
A Chéret poster from the same period seems too conventional next to Lautrec’s shocking compositions. With posters like “Moulin Rouge” and “Divan Japonais” (Japanese sofa – also a cabaret), we see a vision of modernity in art.
Lautrec arrives early in the morning to see his printers, Chaix, Ancourt or the father Cotelle. He takes his jacket off, ties his apron and joins in printing the first drafts, drawing new faces on the blocks with a remarkable firmness of strokes, and finding startling short-cuts with his compact, elliptical manner of depicting a moving scene. This shows incredible physical resistance from a man who, despite excessive alcohol consumption, possessed a steadiness of hand that he would keep until his dying day.
Lautrec always went about his work in the same way; “it’s about tekneeck” he would say jokingly. He started off with a preparatory charcoal drawing and painted in roughly with very diluted paints, giving more of a watercolour effect. Then came the move to printing blocks.
From his very first posters, Lautrec innovates. He reduces his colour spectrum to yellow, red, blue and black. Lautrec’s blacks are extraordinary. What’s more, he uses them to create the basis of his posters, which summarize his art. He gets particularly deep olive greens from expert ink mixers, which he uses a great deal for lettering. Lautrec also uses a technique used by many poster designers: spraying. It involves making a fine shower of ink by running a knife over an inky toothbrush. A great admirer of masters in the Japanese print, Lautrec had noticed from their works that it was possible to obtain “equally striking results by juxtaposing simple colours, as you would by superposing numerous colours.” He also moves towards Japanese art with drawings that seem to flow spontaneously, depicting each face with a vigorous pen stroke. In fact, for each poster he creates, Lautrec tries out a number of different forms before finding the perfect tones. Sometimes this only involves one draft, sometimes he is only satisfied after 20 or more. Some of them are made with lettering, that is to say with the poster’s definitive text, others are simply to try out designs without text.
At times he changes the colour of the lettering, experimenting with the background colour. Each poster demands an extraordinary amount of colour research; the drawing and placing of the text must not be detrimental to the composition. Lautrec understands perfectly that the poster is above all meant to be a form of communication. A poster must grab people’s attention with irresistible effects. He learns therefore to remove superfluous details. Contours disappear replaced by solid background colours.
Lautrec died at the beginning of the 20th century, but the success of his posters only grew stronger. It influenced every generation of creators with that sharpness of mind and that sensitivity that these visionary artists made their own.
By a strange coincidence, Lautrec’s death corresponds with the 1901 laws of non-profit making association. On the walls where his posters once hung we now see the famous “no fly posting” sign!