The new Clark Art Institute exhibition titled, Hue&Cry, inspires an appreciation of French color prints through a confection of pastels and bright prints. Unlike Clark’s most recent etching exhibition, competing currentswhich featured Japanese ukiyo e aesthetic and technical, Hue&Cry introduced the new global print marketing. Instead of, Hue&Cry opens with the early development of accurate color imagery in the era leading up to the French Revolution.
I entered the first room, which was painted floor-to-ceiling in a pastel pink and contained a series of expensive prints commissioned by an upper class who displayed them as curiosities. One print, “Dance Mania” (1809), depicts a party attended by aristocrats, who were contorted into ostentatious poses and broad smiles, a facetiousness that contrasted with the atmosphere of the French Revolution ten years earlier.
The many uncredited colorists and hand artists who produced these pieces with an awareness of their sickly sweet sentiment and vanity. In the wake of the Revolution and the introduction of new aesthetic inspirations from Japan, artistic prerogative began to animate color printing nearly a century later.
Passing a wall partition leads to the second room, this time painted in light grey, which features softer, more intimate scenes between mothers and children as well as farmers and their nobly framed livelihoods. The century leap from the carefully defined and realistic neoclassical tradition to a new impressionist influence hints at the startling potential of artistic expression through restraint. Rather than appearing airless from the use of empty spaces and simplified palettes, this restraint allows for controlled dabs of color to invigorate subjects. For example, Camille Pissarro’s print “The Plow” (1901), on the frontispiece of an anarchist journal, depicts the inner life of a peasant, something different from the romantic drama of the first prints.
Enthused by the polarity of perspectives displayed so far, I was ushered into the next room in hopes of encountering a progression of the skilfully employed sky tones of Mary Cassatt and Camille Pissarro. Instead, I encountered a bright yellow triangle of what appeared to be posters – the kind of loud print you might see hanging in an intimate Italian restaurant with a story. Hue&Cry takes flight with the bold range of color lithographs by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Jules Chéret, which depict the thrilling modern Parisian life of house music performances and street flirtations.
With the sacrifice of subtlety and the substitution of insinuations, the expression of the inner life of Parisians manifests itself in the shadowy figures of coquettish jesters. Toulouse-Lautrec’s portrayal of the undesirable suitor from “The Englishman at the Moulin Rouge” (1892), in all its abstraction and flat greyness, sent an electric jolt to me, and Chéret’s pixies and suitors allow jubilation of her daughters to shine across the sun-colored room.
The contemporary nature of the gray and yellow chambers was remarkable – the pieces in these chambers were all created between 1891 and 1901. The additional abstraction of space in the prints of Toulouse-Lautrec and Chéret lends itself well to both the flattened graphic nature of their advertisements, and also to color engraving in its layered approach. It creates new expressive meanings for banked space.
The exhibition has done a wonderful job of making these prints doubly meaningful by drawing attention to the public of art and the voyeuristic nature of their contemporary reading and appropriation.
The ability of the color print to shock its contemporary audience, now interested in collecting these more widely accessible prints, is most evident in the careful restraint of the exhibition itself. One wonders why color prints were banned from display at the Paris Salon until 1899 until they had passed from carefully curated depictions of country life in the gray room, and in the bright city appeal of hedonistic escapes and dimly remembered nights. Toulouse-Lautrec’s “Balcony with a Golden Grotesque Mask” (1894) looks into the next adjoining room with pursed hawk lips and garish fashionable opera glasses, and exactly reflects my feeling.
My tour of the exhibit ended as quickly as it began, as I was led into the next room, again painted gray. Hue&Cry begins to explore more deeply the divergent artistic visions implanted in the first gray room. Skillfully paired lithographs prompt the visitor to reflect on the multiple expressions of prints that share similar techniques, colors and subject matter, but frame completely different emotions and perspectives.
The exhibit shed light on the medium of color printmaking as a whole and takes viewers on a concerted lesson in the medium’s diverse capabilities. The curator’s hand is never more apparent, nor gratifying. It’s succinct and mechanical, and it lends a quality of sweetness to the experience of savoring images that might otherwise be truly fleeting or wild.
I stayed in the gray room as long as possible (the security guard reminded the sparse audience that the Clark was closing in 10 minutes) in front of Pierre Bonnard’s “Le Verger”” (1899) and “Nautical” (1897). Five shades of lush green blend into each other in the foreground and transform the landscape into an enchanting scene of eternal summer. A similar economy of color produces a fantastically picturesque meditation on water, otherwise white but rendered in green ripples, the same hue as the bank.
The final dark blue room features four portfolios by a single artist commissioned by art collector Ambroise Vollard. In this room, the exploration of the engraving methods in the previous rooms is turned towards the vanity of the medium itself. Each of these four portfolios, centered on rushes and visions of modern life, attempts to illustrate the essential form of the print – what a lithograph can express at its heart once it has been distilled into its most more iconic? The portfolios exhibited in the four rooms play on the abstractions and disjointed narration evoked in the previous rooms.
Before leaving the Clark, I rested and enjoyed the hand of the curator who shaped this sweet journey through the colorful layers of each piece.