This exhibition focuses on the relationship between Post-Impressionsit artists and the avant-garde theatre in France in the late nineteenth century. The style of the playbills reflects the differences between the realism of the Theatre Libre, as seen in the programs designed by Lautrec and Ibels, and the symbolic idealization of the plays of the Theatre l’Oeuvre, as seen in the playbills designed by Denis and Serusier. The seventy-six lithographs that comprise the exhibition also include works by Signac, Charpentier, Rodin, Bonnard, Munch, Vuillard, and Jarry.
The exhibition illuminates the collaboration between the young avant-garde artists and the anti-establishment theatre at a point of great vitality in both the visual arts and the theatre, and at a time when original print-making was having an important revival. It was, above all, the technical advances in both print-makinng and stagecraft that made these playbills possible. A renewed interest in the graphic arts, after Cheret popularized the medium of color lithography for poster art, led theatre producers to use these original prints for their programs. In the theatre, there were improvements in lighting, color, fabrics, and the use of new materials which combined to give a new sense of physical reality to the stage.
The exhibition includes the theatre program for Alfred Jarry’s famous Symbolist satire on the human race, Ubu Ropi. Lautrec’s lithograph for the play* L’Argent*, at the Theatre Libre is a strong reflection of the school of naturalist acting. The powerful lithograph shows a woman and men with their backs turned to the viewer as they exit through a door on the right. It was an innovation for actors at the Theatre Libre to speak some of their lines with their backs turned to the audience.
In the lithograph for the Ibsen play, Jean Gabriel Borkman, Munch stresses a feeling of uneasy and restless energy in his portrait of the playwright. The remainder of the design is filled in with a vast and lonely landscape, reflecting how Munch described the play: “The finest projection of a winter landscape in Norwegian art.”
Thje playbills were usually printed on a single sheet of paper about the size of a placemat. It may have been folded in half. On the front would have been a lithograph, illustrating the play. On the back would probably have been a rundown of the scenes and cast.
This exhibition, lent by the Atlas Foundation and sponsored by the Washington Print Club, is circulated by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service.