The Phillips Collection, that gem of a museum in northwest DC, is currently exhibiting rare prints and posters by legendary artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Renowned for his depictions of the underside of Paris life during the Belle Époque, Toulouse-Lautrec was also an ambitious printmaker who considered lithography as important as painting. His bold, colorful approach to new printing technology transformed advertising posters. The Phillips exhibition has a few of his most famous posters in various proof states, providing the viewer a better understanding of the printing process. The scale of the posters gives a clear sense of their impact on city walls. But I was particularly struck by the smaller drawings and lithographs, where the artist's muscular line and original perspective are so evident. He was able to get to the essence of his subject with just a few strong, spare strokes. And I’ve never seen an artist who could define a space so well by leaving large areas of white. White space is used in printing and design to denote the area between blocks of type or around images on a page; it gives “breathing room.” In fine art the space between and around objects is referred to as negative space, and in paintings it’s usually filled with color. Toulouse-Lautrec had an instinctual understanding of white as a negative space. He pulls off the very tricky task of making white space on a page seem full rather than empty. When he’s creating posters, the white space becomes the logical place for the text, but in his drawings it has the power to isolate and emphasize. And what better time to contemplate white space than as I look out at my garden covered in icy whiteness by a freak March snowstorm.
Above: Cecy Loftus, 1895 (detail)
Toulouse-Lautrec Illustrates the Belle Époque (February 4 - April 30, 2017)