Let’s embark Jules Verne’s Time Machine. Now! –It’s the Belle Époque in Paris. On the Rive Gauche, In St-Germain-des-Prés, around the corner from Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore, at 31 Rue Bonaparte, a literary sort named Léon Deschamps has become artistic impresario. His magazine, La Plume, has just published a “History of the Poster.” He names a grand exhibition: the “Salon des Cent”: the Salon of the One Hundred.
With advances in lithography, those elitist oil painters now have new competition: the declassé, déshabillé scribblers, inkers, and ad-makers of Montmartre. This was a new kind of art show: easily reproduced images for the rest of us.
The posters advertising the Salon des Cent, created by many of the age’s best artists, became collectible works of art in their own right. As you can see, they wrestle with the tension of art in the age of reproducibility: themes of introspection, solipsism, and contemplation abound. Here are some of the very best:
For the very first exhibition of the Salon des Cent, Ibels references three famous characters from the Commedia dell’Arte. Pining with love, the ever-sad clown Pierrot paints the beautiful ballerina Columbine. Meanwhile, Harlequin, the man with whom she will eventually run off, peers over his shoulder. Ibels has placed his signature on Pierrot’s canvas, possibly alluding to the sympathy he has for the character.
The Salon des Cent quickly became a hit – and soon after, its advertising conventions became set. The exhibition’s posters almost always featured women, alone, lost in contemplation, reading, or in the process of creating art. De Feure’s image for the Fifth Salon is no exception. Expensively but discreetly dressed, this art patron is absent-mindedly fondling a white flower – as if wishing to respond to an idea, yet still composing that answer.
One of the best – and most hilarious – Salon des Cents comes from Rene Hermann-Paul, who immediately turns conventions inside out. Instead of the forlorn, solitary artist, or the introspective observer, Hermann-Paul creates a self-portrait, giving you a great big kiss. Of course, he’s drawn this image in a mirror, so it’s an exercise in exuberant narcissism. And wit. Love it.
1896. The third year of the Salon des Cent. Here come the heavyweights. For the 23rd Salon, Bonnard creates a most subtle but stimulating frisson of contrasts: the excitement of the pup and the anticipation of the woman turning around, so we may see her face; the muteness of the woman, behind her veil, and the complete blankness of the unfinished form facing us. It’s a brilliant interpretation of “an announcement of an exhibition”: the paradox of revealing and concealment.
In 1896, Mucha was flush with success after his work for Sarah Bernhardt. But he was about to be exhibited alongside the stars of French fin-de-siècle lithography: Toulouse-Lautrec, Bonnard, Steinlen, Grasset…
“Mucha’s ambition was to become a member of this group,” writes Victor Arwas. The artist succeeded by attracting the attention of Deschamps. “Deschamps visited Mucha in his studio while he was designing the poster. Fascinated by what he saw, he persuaded Mucha to print it in this unfinished version… Mucha agreed, and the publisher’s feeling, that this lightly outlined, impressive poster would make Mucha famous, proved to be correct.”
Summer, 1895. Lautrec and fellow artist Maurice Guibert are on board the steamer Le Chili, en route along the Atlantic coast from Le Havre to Bordeaux. Lautrec cannot keep his eyes off the young woman berthed in cabin No. 54. She’s meeting her husband in Senegal. Lautrec, suddenly obsessed, ignoring pleas from Guibert, refuses to get off the boat at Bordeaux. Finally, finally, he is persuaded off the boat at Lisbon. But not before he’s captured a photograph of the unknown woman, which he turned into a lithograph of the exact same pose: ideal for the Salon des Cent, with its running themes of meditation, admiration and preoccupation.
The only known poster by this artist, the design wittily undermines conventions at the annual Salon des Cent. While most artists promoting this exhibition have focused on women in contemplation, Womrath takes a different tack: a gentleman is rapt with attention at the shape of a vase while a woman looks on, dreamily with slight interest, as her hand leafs through drawings or paintings, possibly of nude men.