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The wonderful exhibition Prints in Paris 1900: From Elite to the Street takes us back to a vibrant Paris at the turn of the previous century. Over 250 Fin-de-Siècle prints are being shown in their original context; prints that are rarely displayed due to their fragility. Being an Art Nouveau lover, and a great admirer of Japanese art, I felt extremely privileged to be able to visit this exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. And you can visit the exhibition too, it’s on until 11 June 2017.

Louis-Robert Carrier-Belleuse, The Tinsmith, 1882, oil on canvas, private collection

Louis-Robert Carrier-Belleuse, The Tinsmith, 1882, oil on canvas, private collection

Due to the industrial revolution of the mid 19th century and the new riches of the middle class, the streets of fin-de-siecle Paris changed. Where people had previously stayed inside their private homes for entertainment, at the end of the 19th century the Nouveau Riche went looking for entertainment elsewhere. Shopkeepers discovered that modern shop fronts with large shop windows could attract more customers, and colourful advertisements could attract the attention of an even larger number of people. The streets of Paris turned into one visual spectacle!

Until the 1870s, advertising had mainly been done with text. And prints had only been a means of reproduction, to illustrate an article about ‘real art’ in a magazine for instance. But thanks to new technologies in printing, particularly colour lithography which allowed the mass production of colour posters, graphic art flourished during the Art Nouveau period. The extra income from printmaking gave the young artists more freedom; financial freedom as well as creative freedom to experiment with vivid colours, streamlined forms and distinctive lettering. 

1896 Théophile Alexandre Steinlen (1859-1923)

1896 Théophile Alexandre Steinlen (1859-1923)

Another new phenomenon were posters of famous singers, dancers and actors. Artists made life-size, easily identifiable portraits of these stars, with their names in big letters. This contributed to the ‘celebrity culture’ we still have today. Some artists became so immensely popular that people started collecting their prints. From Alphonse Mucha’s posters we know for instance that they were removed as soon as they had been pasted to the walls, the glue still wet.

What I particularly love about all these prints, is their ‘Japanese’ appearance. Young artists were clearly inspired by the Japanese woodblock prints that Siegfried Bing imported into Europe. And we can easily identify ‘Japanese’ characteristics such as the original use of colour and composition, the pars pro toto principle (where the subject is not shown entirely), fortuitous framing and asymmetrical compositions.

Art was no longer confined to galleries, museums and salons; it could be found on Paris walls, on covers for sheet music and illustrated art magazines circulating throughout Europe and the United States. World-famous posters like Le Chat Noir and Divan Japonais were displayed along the boulevards and in popular cafés. The avant-garde artists in Paris created a bridge between art and the masses.

By the end of the 19th century, the artistic qualities of a print had become more important and modern artists embraced the art of printmaking. Painting was no longer their ultimate goal. They were just as eager to use their talents to design print series, book covers, posters and magazine illustrations. In a way, they rejected the traditional dividing line between ‘high’ arts such as sculpture and painting and ‘low’ decorative arts. Graphic art became equally important as academic art. This made prints appealing to collectors. Print dealers focused on this new market, responding to the demand for rare unique works.

The exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum explains that there were basically two categories of prints: Prints for the Elite, and Prints for the Street. On the streets you would find advertising posters for cigarettes, for beer, for soap, ink, perfume, for the theatre… basically, for anything you can think of. For the elite collectors, so-called amateurs, artists created exclusive impressions with a more intimate character. Prints with a more erotic, darker or more provocative character that allow us to see a different turn-of-the-century Paris.

1896 Félix Vallotton (1865-1925)

1896 Félix Vallotton (1865-1925)

And where paintings were usually hung on the wall for everyone to see, these exclusive prints were often confined to a more hidden environment. Collectors examined them in the peace and quiet of their studies. According to critic and collector Roger Marx (1859–1913), you had to look at a print for a long time before receiving the artist’s message like a whispered secret. “After one of those long days of disappointing Paris life … I throw myself into an armchair, close to the stand where my favourite engravings lie sleeping in their large portfolio, and as I examine them one by one, my troubles evaporate, I forget the cares of this world!”, wrote Marx in 1883.

Henri Manuel, Roger Marx's study, ca. 1910–1913, Legacy van Claude Roger-Marx, Musée de l'École de Nancy, Nancy

Henri Manuel, Roger Marx’s study, ca. 1910–1913, Legacy of Claude Roger-Marx, Musée de l’École de Nancy, Nancy

The wealthy fin-de-siècle bourgeoisie was fond of withdrawing into their private interiors where they would keep their print collections in special, decorated stands, portfolios and cabinets. The nice thing about this exhibition is that it actually shows how graphic art was collected. I particularly liked the way the museum recreated the richly decorated interiors of the wealthy collectors, all the way down to the Art Nouveau wallpaper and dado panels. This really adds something extra to the exhibition.

Collectors also wanted to admire the more popular prints from the streets in their homes. And quickly a lively trade in luxury editions came about. More expensive paper was used, commercial texts were omitted and editions were limited. A great example is below print by Théophile Alexandre Steinlen! The original advertising poster on the left, and the limited avant-la-lettre edition for the collectors on the right.

The prints were excellent, that goes without saying. But from my personal perspective – getting to know Art Nouveau – I found this above all a very educational exhibition. I hope I have been able to convey that information clearly, and maybe even wetted your appetite to visit the exhibition yourself.

Prints in Paris 1900: From Elite to the Street
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
3 March 2017 – 11 June 2017

Book Prints in Paris 1900 from elite to the street

Exhibition Catalogue

Read more:
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
French Print Collection of the Van Gogh Museum online
Graphic Art Nouveau wiki page
Japonism wiki page
De schouders en boezem ontbloot, hijgend, de wangen in passiegloed – Rond1900.nl
Virtual exhibition: Prints in Paris
Review of the exhibition by Gabriel P. Weisberg