WEB EXTRA: A (forgettable) tale of two cities

At the beginning of the modernist era, Paris was the cultural center of the world and London was the financial center of the world. The two superpowers of Europe had a symbiotic relationship: whatever Paris produced London bought and sold; Paris provided the avant-garde talent and London provided the money to support the artists and sell their works. The three artists featured in The Phillips Collection’s exhibition “Degas, Sickert, and Toulouse-Lautrec: London and Paris, 1870-1910” exemplify this affiliation between the two cities.

Edgar Degas’ international reputation as a leading impressionist and master of innovative compositional perspective was exceptionally influential in his native France as well as abroad. English artist Walter Sickert, widely rumored to have been infamous serial killer Jack the Ripper, knew of Degas’ work, and came to Paris specifically to learn from the masters of the new modern style and engage in the bohemian life typified by Toulouse and synonymous with such places as the Moulin Rouge.

Particularly of interest was the introduction of a new type of subject matter: depicting scenes of modern, urban, early industrial life. Arguably the most famous of this type would be Degas’ “L’Absinthe” from 1875 in which a young woman, presumably a prostitute, sits in a caf? next to her client, with a full goblet of absinthe on the table in front of her, a drink that many English critics of the work claimed was the downfall of French society. It’s a beautifully painted yet dark and cynical portrait of modernity.

The one room devoted to Toulouse-Lautrec featured only a small selection of his printed posters. The premise for his inclusion in the show was that he was the go-to party hopper of Paris and willingly escorted wealthy Londoners through this world of entertainment and frivolity.

His print “The Englishman at the Moulin Rouge, 1892” is a good example because it shows the uncomfortable interaction between a recognizable English artist, in all gray and black outline, and two well-known prostitutes, contrasted in colorful washes. While his posters are exciting, and rarely on display, I felt as if they were more of an after-thought than a conscience addition to the exhibition.

Other than “L’Absinthe,” a masterpiece in its own right, and a few other notable or eye-catching pieces, the show was mostly forgettable. The connection between London and Paris was established after looking at the first handful of paintings, and the rest of the show seemed to be included simply because it was from the same time period, not because it added much to the exhibition. A successful show should be able to have its theme visibly obvious to the viewer through the art and not depend upon explanatory labels to do the work.

Even if you are a big Degas fan, you are better off going to the National Gallery for free to see their impressionist collection than paying $10 to go to the Phillips Collection for an assorted mishmash of works loosely connected by time period than any overarching theme. I would rather suggest you save your $10 on this show and spend it on the upcoming Phillips Collection’s masterpiece exhibition featuring the return of Renoir’s beloved “Luncheon of the Boating Party,” opening this Saturday.

Degas, Sickert and Toulouse Lautrec: London and Paris, 1870-1910 will be on display at the Phillips Collection until May 14.

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