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Monday, Aug. 20, 2012

Barnett Gallery's 'Paris Art Scene' Holds Treasures

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David Barnett Gallery's "Toulouse-Lautrec and the Paris Art Scene" (through Oct. 13) is a must-see exhibition for anyone interested in French political and artistic history. The centerpiece is a rare 1897 portfolio of signed lithographs, which Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec created to accompany George Clemenceau's tract Au Pied Du Sinai ("At the Foot of Sinai"). The text was conceived during the height of the infamous Dreyfus Affair, concerning false accusations against a Jewish captain in the French army. The work combated the rampant anti-Semitism that plagued the country through human-interest stories sympathetic to the long-oppressed group.

In this vein, Toulouse-Lautrec's lithographic sketches portray aspects of everyday Jewish life with subjects ranging from the societal upper crust (Le Baron Moise-La Loge depicts a wealthy couple in their opera box) to the inhabitants of Polish ghettos. Despite his politically charged subject matter, the artist maintains the balance of gritty realism and profound empathy for which he is famed. Une Arriere-Boutique A Cracovie ("Back Room of a Shop in Krakow"), for instance, depicts an old man and a small cat leaning out of a dark stone garret. The mood is forlorn but introspective, a striking meditation on the complexity of Jewish life. Less subdued is Arrestation de Schlome Fuss ("Arrested Schlome Fuss"), in which the artist turned anti-Semitic iconography on its head, making the arrested man the central and tonally lighter figure and the accosting soldier darker and less facially striking.

Paired with the selection from Au Pied du Sinai, and forming an interesting ideological counterpoint, is a wide selection of vintage posters and original prints spanning the 1890s-1930s. These works demonstrate the tremendous pro-war and pro-nationalist feelings that pervaded the Republic at the time of the World Wars. Emprunt De La Defense Nationale, for example, is a sentimental image of a father leaving for battle as his young children brandish toy swords and wave French flags.

This section of the exhibit also points to lighter themes of fin de siècle culture, as in the rollicking music hall poster Dolly and various vacation destination advertisements. Whether your interests lie in the history of race and class in French politics, or in the scope and grandeur of the country's artistic tradition, David Barnett's latest treasure is sure to get you thinking.