Demimonde: The Floating World and Toulouse-Lautrec

David Libertson
Mar 17, 2016 9:25PM

Demimonde: /dem-ee-mond/ (n.) Mid-19th century origin, from French demi-monde, literally ‘half-world.’ A group of people considered to be on the fringes of respectable society; holds pleasure seeking connotations, associated with hedonistic lifestyles, usually in a conspicuous and flagrant manner, often in direct contrast to ruling class behavior.

In the essay Le Café Concert, Montorgueil explains, the “café concert was not a den of iniquity but rather a tonic for modern life.” While Montorgueil describes the importance of pleasure amidst the social tumult of 1880s France, this statement is equally at home in Edo-period Japan (1603–1868). During the 17th century, the merchant class flourished, but remained stifled within the strict stratification of Japanese society. They turned from traditional culture for the pleasures of the floating world—the ephemeral realm of the kabuki theaters and the Yoshiwara, the licensed prostitution district. Though separated by an ocean and nearly a century, Edo’s floating world and fin-de-siècle Paris shared in a departure from polite society to a fervent celebration of worldly pleasure. Each culture developed a demimonde, a half-world, that enticed even the elite, whether members of the Edo’s samurai class or demimondaines, the bourgeois tourists in Paris’ notorious Montmartre neighborhood.

Edo’s woodblock print artists immortalized the colorful floating world through ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the floating world.” Following the opening of Japan in 1854, these prints reverberated throughout the hearts of Western artists, resonating with the demimonde of fin-de-siècle France. The compositional daring, sharp diagonals, bold, flat blocks of color, and love for the quotidian captured the imagination of the French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists alike, providing a fresh visual vocabulary to depict the modern world. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was particularly entranced. The influence of the Japanese prints that he so avidly collected appears throughout his oeuvre, but especially resounds through his lithographs. Like the ukiyo-e artists in Japan, Lautrec embraced the world of actors, courtesans, and other spectral figures of the pleasure culture.

Divan Japonais, 1892-1893
Ronin Gallery

Ronin Gallery is pleased to present Demimonde: The Floating World and Toulouse-Lautrec, a stunning juxtaposition of Lautrec’s lithographs and the Japanese woodblock prints that inspired him. From masterworks of ukiyo-e, to Lautrec’s large-scale posters and the Le Café Concert set, this exhibition invites you to explore the parallel demimondes of fin-de-siècle Paris and Edo-period Japan, as well as the elements of Japonisme in Lautrec’s work.

Ukiyo: The Floating World

By the early 17th century, the ancient feudal wars had ended and Japan entered an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity. The new Tokugawa Shogunate moved the capital from Kyoto to Edo (present day Tokyo) and instituted a policy of sankin kotai. Meaning “alternate attendance,” this edict required daimyo (provincial lords) and their households to rotate residence between their regional homes and the capital. This measure not only kept local power in check, but also spurred Edo’s rapid urbanization. Surpassing one million residents, Edo became Japan’s largest city and allowed the merchant class to thrive. For the first time in Japanese history, a middle class emerged and the demimonde was born. Catering to Edo’s vast population of pleasure seekers, both samurai and townspeople alike, this ephemeral realm revolved around the Yoshiwara and kabuki theater. As described by Kyoto author Asai Ryoi in 1655, ukiyo, or the “floating world,” was a beauty like no other:

“Living only for a moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms, and the ample, singing songs, drinking wine, and diverting ourselves just in floating, caring not a whit for the poverty staring us in the face, refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call ukiyo.”

The floating world revolved around worldly pleasure. The Yoshiwara offered the beautiful, the sensual and the physical, inviting its customers into a fantasy of love or lust. To visit this licensed prostitution district, patrons were required to travel across land and water; ripe with anticipation by the time they arrived. This mysterious and illusory world operated by its own rules, developing its own dialect, festivals, and even conception of time. Upon entering the main gate, visitors could purchase guidebooks to learn the intricacies of each brothel, the roster of oiran (elite courtesans), and words of wisdom for this district of perceived femme fatales.

The Eighth Month, ca. 1784
Ronin Gallery

Whether seeking one of the lower-ranking courtesans in harimise, the custom of sitting in the window as to allow “window shopping,” or arranging to meet with a famed oiran, the patron of the Yoshiwara could indulge in various levels of fabricated romance. Sold by her family to the brothel at an age as young as seven, a courtesan’s rank would be determined by age 11 or 12. Though educated in etiquette, conversation and the arts, even the highest-ranking courtesan was a prisoner, unable to escape the crushing debt of her purchase price. Caged and captive, these women became the epitome of elegance and fashion at the hand of the ukiyo-e artists. The romanticized courtesan dominated the genre of bijin-ga, or “pictures of beautiful women,” throughout the development of ukiyo-e, from Harunobu’s youthful, anonymous beauties to Utamaro’s intimate portraits. American Impressionist Mary Cassatt was deeply inspired by Utamaro and channeled his insightful renderings of the private lives of women in her warm depictions of motherhood. In describing his work to her fellow artists, Cassatt exclaimed, “you who want to make color prints, you couldn’t imagine anything more beautiful.”

In the neighborhood of Tsukiji, the kabuki theater served a visual feast of dramatic pleasures. These plays were rowdy affairs, featuring only male performers after 1629. The theater, like the Yoshiwara, was one of the few realms frequented by both samurai and merchant classes despite the strict stratification of Edo society. The theaters were divided into sections, tiered boxes and the main pit. From tales of revenge to tragic love-suicide stories, these highly stylized productions served as a major impetus for the growth of ukiyo-e. The two arts engaged in a symbiotic relationship: theaters depended on prints for advertisement, whereas the ukiyo-e artists developed their art form through kabuki subjects. Presenting one or two characters in dramatic poses, yakusha-e (actor portraits) captured the distinctive costumes, specific gestures, and recognizable makeup of favorite roles, alerting the city to coming attractions.

Ukiyo-e immortalized Edo’s unique culture by promoting its beauty, fashions and heroes. However, modernity’s impatient knocking soon disturbed the floating world. In 1853, Commodore Perry’s black ships docked in Edo Bay, bearing President Millard Fillmore’s invitation to establish trade and diplomatic relations with the United States. Wary of the Western world’s propensity for gunboat diplomacy, the weakening Tokugawa Shogunate decided to engage in foreign trade in 1854, ending over 250 years of sakoku (closed country). Following the opening of Japan, the flow of Japanese art and decorative objects into Europe became a powerful surge.

Japonisme: The Great Wave

The 1867 Paris Exposition Universelle exposed many Europeans to Japan for the first time. It was here that many purchased their first prints. Lacquer, porcelain and bronze initially intrigued fading enthusiasts of chinoiserie as the freshest wave of the exotic. Imported Japanese fans, albums, paintings, and prints began to appear in shops around Paris. These items embodied the height of vogue, inciting such intense passion that it led French art critic Zacharie Astruc and American artist James Whistler into a physical altercation over a particular Japanese fan. Whistler (1834–1903) soon found influence in meisho-e, or “famous place prints.” He echoes Hiroshige in Boats Alongside Billingsgate, London (1859), exploring dramatic close-up and truncation of form through the boat in the foreground. While woodblock prints gained popularity more slowly than the decorative arts, by 1870 ukiyo-e could be found in curiosité shops, tea warehouses, and large magasins. Meanwhile, as Europe romanticized Japan, the Meiji Emperor rapidly steered the country away from tradition and towards modernization.

Young Child Dresses as Sojo Henjo, 1804
Ronin Gallery

The French art critic Philippe Burty (1830-1890) coined the term Japonisme in 1872 to “designate a new field of study—artistic, historic, and ethnographic borrowing from the arts of Japan.” This new designation arose from the 1867 Paris Exposition Universelle, but described an artistic movement spanning France, the Netherlands, Great Britain, Germany, and the United States. Japanese art reached the height of fashion during the decline of Realism, at a time when the French Academy had become too rigid for many artists. Japanese art provided a fresh visual language for a changing world. The ukiyo-e masters captured the imagination of the French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists through compositional daring, sharp diagonals, ornamental patterns, bold, flat blocks of color, and a love for the quotidian.

Japonisme held a different meaning to each artist who came under its spell. For Jacques James Tissot (1836–1902), his expression took the form of exoticized subject matter. In the print Prodigal Son in Modern Life: In Foreign Climes, Tissot presents a line of dancing Japanese courtesans, recalling groups of fashionable beauties found in Kiyonaga’s print. The scene overflows with all things Japanese—courtesans, architecture, clothing, customs—but is rendered in the distinctly European style of etching. In contrast, Edgar Degas (1834–1917) found inspiration in the stylistic elements of ukiyo-e, integrating these visual concepts into his existing style. In Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Paintings Gallery (1879-80), Degas portrays his friend and fellow artist with a narrow format, inspired by Japanese pillar prints, as he partially obscures his subject in the style of Hiroshige. While artists such as Degas and Cassatt focused on the human form, Manet channeled the popularity of the feline subject matter and applied Hokusai’s careful, economic use of line in The Cats (1869). From subjects to style, Japanese prints had a profound impact on French printmaking at the turn of the century. For the Post-Impressionist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, this effect was all consuming.

Lautrec and Life on le Butte

While Lautrec chose to live his life far from bourgeois ideals, he was a member of the French aristocracy by birth. The son of first cousins, Lautrec felt the consequences of the fraught union. He was born in 1864 with a hereditary bone disease, though his family actively denied the condition. At age 13, Lautrec broke his femur in one leg, followed by the other femur one year later. He recovered from the accidents, but his legs never grew again, and the artist measured 5’1” at his full height. During his recovery, Lautrec spent his time drawing and working with watercolors. He was naturally talented and began formal artistic study with René Princeteau. In the 1880s, Lautrec left the comfort of his aristocratic upbringing in Albi, a small town in the south of France, for the entrancingly gritty Pigalle, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Paris. Here he became friends with leading artists entranced by Japanese prints, including Vuillard and Van Gogh. Vuillard evoked a sense of perspective in his interior scenes, as seen in the cover print for Landscapes and Interiors (1889). Known for his warm interiors and tender portraits of life in the home, Vuillard found inspiration in Harunobu’s inviting interiors, while Vincent van Gogh directly copied Hiroshige’s Plum Garden at Kameido (1857) and Sudden Shower on Shin Ohashi (1857) in oil paint.

Mary Cassatt in the Paintings Gallery at the Louvre, 1879-1880
Ronin Gallery

As a resident of the lively, if dangerous, Parisian demimonde, Lautrec captured this exciting realm in daring compositions. He believed that “ugliness always and everywhere has its enchanting side; it is exciting to hit upon it where no one has ever noticed it before.” He found this overlooked beauty in café concerts and dance halls of Pigalle and Montmartre, as well as in the characters that frequented these shadowed haunts. The neighborhood of Montmartre was known as le butte, meaning “the hill.” Pigalle bordered the base of the hill, home to Lautrec and the Moulin Rouge, while Montmartre was filled with café concerts and clubs. The promise of low rents and a vibrant subculture attracted artists, writers, dancers, and other creatives to the area. Lautrec was not simply an observer of the Parisian demimonde, but a key member of the community. He published his first illustrations in montmartrois journals, while his paintings adorned the walls of the popular destinations of the 18th arrondissement. In 1889, the Moulin Rouge was revived from a dying club into a vision of beauty and pleasure. The club derived its name from its signature red windmill that continues to turn even today. Bedecked in Moorish and East Asian styling, the dance hall boasted an open courtyard complete with an immense wooden elephant, which appears in Lautrec’s later signatures, and an explosive new dance phenomenon called the cancan. The chahuteueses, the cancan dancers, would high kick in a frenzy, underwear optional, before leaping into the air with a shriek and landing in a split. A dear friend of the performers, Lautrec spent his evenings sketching the dancers and guests. Each night a table was fixed, ready and waiting for him at the Moulin Rouge.

In 1882, Harry Humphrey Moore introduced Lautrec to a small album of Japanese woodblock prints. The following year, Lautrec attended the Exposition Retrospective de l’Art Japonais. The first true retrospective of Japanese art in the West, this exhibition spanned paintings, bronzes, lacquer, ink drawings, albums and woodblock prints. As he admired the work of ukiyo-e artists, this visit sparked a fire in Lautrec. He began to avidly collect Japanese prints, trading his own paintings for ukiyo-e he particularly desired. He donned Japanese costume for masked balls and posed in the style of a Sharaku actor portrait in photographs. In the 1890s, when not at the Moulin Rouge, Lautrec began to spend entire days in the print shop of Goupils, studying the work of ukiyo-e masters and learning to read and replicate signatures. While ukiyo-e styles had been steadily infiltrating his drawings and paintings, this influence peaked in his lithographic work.

“L’affiche, y a qu’ça:” The Print, That’s All There Is!

Lithography fit the pace of Paris. The wide avenues of mid-19th century Paris invited a greater role of public life. A successful poster would not only catch each passing eye, but would become an inseparable part of the culture. While the narrow, winding alleys of Montmartre recalled a Parisian past, the poster played a modern role, advertising and extolling the celebrities of le butte. Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947) developed his lithographic style under the influence of ukiyo-e. Evident in his night scene, The Square at Evening (1897), Bonnard takes a lesson from Hiroshige, using semi-abstraction to evoke the atmosphere of evening and a touch of red to tease the eye. Upon seeing Bonnard’s famous France-Champagne lithographic poster in 1891, Lautrec sought out his fellow artist. Bonnard introduced Lautrec to the publisher Ancourt, who published Lautrec’s first lithographic poster, La Goulue: Moulin Rouge, in 1891.

The lithographic process depends on the principle that water and oil repel each other, but the technique mirrors the Japanese woodblock printing process: the desired image is drawn, either with wax crayon or with oil-based ink, directly onto the lithographic stone (usually limestone). The stone is then wet with water, and the printing ink is applied. The water repels the ink, but the grease of the image attracts it. The paper is applied and the printed image is the reverse of the original design. Like woodblock printing, the “key impression” is printed first, followed by a series of the desired colors.

As the ukiyo-e artist’s before him, Lautrec sought a new audience, a break from the traditional patrons. He produced illustrations, invitations, song-sheets, theater programs, periodicals and menus, all through the lithographic medium, all reflecting an increasing influence of Japanese prints. These works reached a wide audience, visible from the street in the windows of Montmartre’s cabarets and café concerts.

Just as 18th-century yakusha-e announced upcoming performances and starring actors, Lautrec’s lithographs celebrated and publicized the clubs and performances of his friends from the demimonde. He integrated a muted color palate, bird’s eye perspective, flattened spaces and colors, raking diagonals, truncated objects, and complex composition into his already vibrant style. In 1892, Lautrec began signing his works with his initials, HTL, compressed into a circle. This emblem was inspired by designs found on tsuba, or Japanese sword hilts. Often rendered in vermillion, this signature evoked the seals found on the prints he collected. Japanese calligraphy left a profound impact on Lautrec’s understanding of movement. The artist ordered brushes and inks from Japan, eager to achieve the spontaneity of form and tangible movement that he admired in Japanese brush drawings and calligraphy.

May Milton, 1895
Ronin Gallery

Lautrec combined these compositional tools and a calligraphic spontaneity of line with an intimacy learned from Utamaro and the explosive theatricality and individuality of Sharaku. Of his peers, Lautrec idolized Degas. Navigating the shadowed life of the Parisian dancers, Degas captured the human body in its myriad postures and silent languages. Lautrec furthered this idea through the lessons of the ukiyo-e masters, exploring the emotional power hidden in each angle, the secret language of each subtle shift in posture and expression. Informed by the austerity of line in Hokusai’s Manga, Lautrec astutely conveys meanings through countless postures and facial expressions. Misia Nathanson, a friend of the artist asked, “Tell me, Lautrec, why do you always make your women so ugly?” He quickly shot back, “Because they are ugly!” To Lautrec, beauty was found in the grimace, in the distinctive features that he inflated to near caricature. His portraits of performers evoke the Japanese mie—the exaggerated dramatic pose, often held at a climactic moment in a kabuki production— to create dynamic portraits of recognizable public personas. While Lautrec’s renditions were not always deemed favorable, they conveyed indisputable likeness.

In 1899, Lautrec suffered from syphilis and growing alcoholism. Institutionalized in Neuilly, he began to furiously sketch from memory in an effort to convince his doctors of his sanity and earn his freedom. While he succeeded and was released after several months of treatment, he promptly returned to his drinking and soon abandoned his work. He never made it to Japan. Though his mother had offered to finance his trip, Lautrec could never find a willing travel companion. In 1901, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec suffered a stroke and died on September 9th at the age of 36. Following his death, the character of Montmartre began to fade. The sarcastic critique of the bourgeoisie and reprieve from polite society Lautrec immortalized in his paintings, drawings and prints became the mainstream entertainment center of early-20th century Paris. Like the floating world of Edo, the demimonde of Montmartre dissolved with the push of modernity.

David Libertson