1890s Paris comes alive in 'Signs of the Times' at the BMA

May 15, 1992|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

Ah, Paris in the 1890s, the glamorous world of such entertainers as Yvette Guilbert and Loie Fuller, the carefree pastimes of bicyling and ice skating, the heady fascination with progress. It must have been a fine time to be alive, and that spirit comes through in the attractive "Signs of the Time:Turn-of-the-Century French Posters" at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Posters could be high art, but they were advertisements, too, so they reflect particularities of their age. And among much else these reflect the incredibly active art world. There were the periodicals advertised here -- La revue blanche, L'estampe et l'affiche, L'Epreuve -- but above all there were the artists themselves. Among the artists on display at the BMA are some of the finest of the period, including Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Edouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard.

In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of this show of 52 works by 19 artists is how they compare with one another. Jules Cheret, too heavily represented with 20 works, shows himself essentially as a clever, appealing designer. The picture and the lettering are always carefully worked out, the message is clear and effective -- Cheret must have pleased those he worked for -- but his mostly red-haired, vapidly smiling women all look the same, and a lot of Cherets together become awfully cloying.

Right in the middle of a group of Cheret's posters hangs Jacques Villon's "Guinguette Fleurie," advertising a Montmartre tavern. The main figure's brilliant red cloak, her informal pose, the lettering meant to look undesigned and by a casual hand, conspire to communicate almost subliminally the essence of the kind of place being advertised, and the overall appearance of the Villon makes its Cheret neighbors look especially artificial.

As for Lautrec's "Moulin-Rouge (La Goulue)," with its daring shifts in space, dimension (from two to three to two), light and color, and its suggestion of the hard, even cynical underside of the gay cabaret life -- posters don't get any better than this.

Theophile Alexandre Steinlen may not be in that rank, but his work here shows him repeatedly able to capture something that stops and focuses the attention: In "Ambassadeurs, Yvette Guilbert" it is the second the singer appears to the audience, as she undergoes the transformation from private person to public persona; in "Lait Pur Sterilise" it is the striking red of the little girl's dress; in "Le 4 Septembre Paraitre Le Petit Sou" it is the dynamic gesture of the call to the struggle.

And Eugene Carriere's "The Foundryman," the only black-and-white work in the show, achieves a powerful effect, in part with its dramatic lighting.

Many of these posters from the museum's collection have been conserved recently; a supplement to the show explains the conservation process.

The show runs through Aug. 9 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive near Charles and 31st streets. Call (410) 396-7100.

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