Prints in Paris – at the Amsterdam van Gogh museum

“From elite to the street”, is the exhibition’s subtitle. For the van Gogh Museum takes you from elitist collector’s rooms to Parisian streets. This new exhibition explains the craze for prints which took Paris by storm during the “fin de siecle”.

The van Gogh Museum not only has its stunning permanent exhibition of works by Vincent van Gogh. (After entering the museum, head left and up the stairs.) According to the museum, it also” owns one of the world’s finest collections of French fin-de-siècle prints.” Being an admirer of art from this specific period, I simply had to visit.

This exhibition certainly gives you a clear impression of what Parisian streets looked like during the Belle Epoque. Early photos may have been black-and-white, the streets simply screamed colours, thanks to the many posters advertising anything and everything.

On arriving inside the museum, you find this exhibition to the right. Once inside the exhibition wing, visitors are introduced to the collector craze which swept Paris around 1900. Artists broke away from painting, started to experiment with prints and branched out into mass-produced illustrations. There are collector items like limited editions and posters advertising the “Divan Japonais” or “Moulin Rouge”.

Members of the elite had always collected prints, but marketing and mass production seems to play an increasing role. Limited editions, signed editions, special series – it is all here. Collectors write how they unwind, after a bland day slaving at a dreadful office job, by looking at their favorite prints. They kept their collections in special maps and cases. Several can be admired here, including one truly over-the-top custom-designed book-cum-print case.

Here are series created by artists including Paul Gauguin. There are paintings and prints by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. One  limited edition has a frontispiece of two long, black gloves. They are one of the hallmarks of Yvette Guilbert. Toulouse-Lautrec’s silhouette can be detected on a print nearby. There are series illustrating society’s double standards.

On the second floor, the craze and short life of posters and advertising prints are highlighted. Some posters show “battle scars”, from being torn off pillars or walls by crazy collectors. The exhibition points out: Parisian weather and the short “wall-life” of advertising material ensured there was a constant turn-over.

From the elitist bourgeois drawing rooms, visitors are now sauntering through Paris’ streets. Prints were everywhere. Here one finds famous mass-produced ones like those designed by Theophile Steinlen for the “Chat Noir” cabaret and iconic ones by Toulouse-Lautrec showing singer Aristide Bruant.

But there are also prints advertising ordinary items like soap or wine. Pick up one of the music sheets, after looking at a wall covered with prints of sentimental street ballads. Or create your very own “Le Chat Noir” shadow theater picture.

The top floor explains how prints were created. Here stands a printing press. On the wall hang samples of various prints. There are short videos explaining processes.

What did such prints costs? Apparently, one paid from 15 centimes upward at Parisian kiosks. This did not prevent crazy collectors from ripping posters – created by their favorite artists – from walls and cart them home. Only for these prints to end up in a museum and now being shown again to “passers-by” in a very interesting exhibition. To limit waiting-time, you can order your visitor ticket for a specific time-slot through the museum website.

The catalogue “Prints in Paris 1900, from elite to the street” is available in French, English, Dutch and costs 45 Euro.

YouTube van Gogh introduction to “Prints in Paris: From elite to the street”
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

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