The humanist eye of the cat painter
About the exhibition "Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen, l'exposition du centenaire", on view until 11 February 2024 at the Musée de Montmartre in Paris.
"What's the point of preaching? You have to act. The world is not going the way it should", said Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen as long ago as 1898! Yes, the painter of the famous poster for Le Chat Noir, the emblematic cabaret of Montmartre and the Belle Epoque, was not just a draughtsman and sculptor of cats! Above all, he was a politically committed artist, deeply affected by the working-class misery he had been constantly rubbing shoulders with since arriving in Paris in 1881 with his future wife Emilie, after training in industrial ornamental design with Schoenhaupt in Mulhouse. Born on 8 November 1859 into a Swiss petty bourgeoisie on the shores of Lake Geneva, he had learned nothing from one of his teachers, a former Communard who had been exiled to the Lycée in Lausanne. He had often played truant to go and draw in the countryside, but the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity were well integrated. So much so that he broke with his family very early on - who saw him becoming a pastor and forced him to take theology classes - that he became a naturalised French citizen in 1901, and ended his days at the foot of the Butte Montmartre at the age of 64, in the arms of his only daughter, Colette, in December 1923. He also lived for thirty years in his flat on rue Caulaincourt, never far from the ragpickers, tinkers, laundresses, public girls and workers...
So yes, of course, the cat, a fetish animal of the late nineteenth century since the poems of Baudelaire, chosen as an emblem by the café-concert that had set up in Paris the same year as Steinlen, would become his trademark. But a cat that never hesitates to get its claws out! For in all his works of art for sale, the artist who took over his friend Toulouse-Lautrec's studio on the latter's death was in fact bearing witness to the social upheavals at the turn of the 20th century. Which makes the exhibition that the Musée de Montmartre is currently devoting to him, from 13 October 2023 until 11 February 2024, to mark the centenary of his death, all the more fascinating. The event is a real tribute to this unclassifiable and protean artist, who was a draughtsman, engraver, painter and sculptor, as well as a humanist, anarchist and libertarian... and who ultimately belonged to just one school: that of freedom.
As Ingrid Dubach-Lemainque recalls in her article for the November issue of L'Oeil magazine, "the law on freedom of the press had just been promulgated in the summer of 1881, and dozens of illustrated newspapers saw the light of day". This was a godsend for the artist who, with the stroke of a pencil, could sketch all the absurdities of the political world and point out social inequalities. His polemical drawings flourished in the magazine Le Chat noir, of course, which appeared from 1882 and immediately brought together the leading artists of the day. But they soon also appeared in Aristide Bruant's Le Mirliton, Gil Blas, Le Chambard socialiste... and many others!
"A common thread runs through his extremely prolific output: that of commitment, so much so that the artist associated art and politics, becoming a critical witness to his time. Steinlen moved his motifs from one technique and medium to another, between the illustrated press, book art, posters and paintings. The human race, but also cats, a carnivalesque double with an irreducible animal strangeness, were the main subjects of the artist, who was also interested in the classical genres of painting, particularly nudes and landscapes. Steinlen was wary of any kind of chapel, and believed in the social and political mission of art, as a way and a voice towards a better world", write Leïla Jarbouai, chief curator of graphic arts and paintings at the Musée d'Orsay, and Saskia Ooms, former head of conservation at the Musée de Montmartre, the curators of this centenary exhibition.
I wonder what Steinlen would think if he knew that in 2019, a collection of his drawings entered the collections of a Paris museum (Orsay in this case) for €446,557... No doubt he would have been flattered to see his value gallop on the art market. Appeased even. In the end, the self-taught artist was a little tired of being recognised only as an anonymous poster artist and press cartoonist. However committed and anti-conformist he might be, he felt he was an artist, full stop. And he wanted to be seen as such. In the same way as the others who frequented Le Chat Noir, be they Camille Pissaro, Vincent Van Gogh, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Alphonse Allais, Stéphane Mallarmé, Claude Debussy or Erik Satie...". Eager for social recognition and notability, bitter at being considered a second-class artist, he gradually turned away from illustration to devote himself, at the end of the century, to painting", tells us the journalist from L'Oeil. Which is strangely reminiscent of the story of Toulouse-Lautrec... As if works of art couldn't be printed on posters!
"Initially refused entry to the salons, over the years he developed a network of patrons, joined the Société nationale des beaux-arts, sculpted animals (many of them cats) and painted still lifes, female nudes and scenes of bourgeois life: a harmonious body of work, a far cry from the unfiltered social world he used to depict," continues Ingrid Dubach-Lemainque. In short, Steinlen slowly put aside his talents as a keen observer of society and his mastery of narrative. It's only a short step from there to deducing that his political convictions were ultimately not enough to prevent the talented polemicist from becoming an opportunist with age... a step I'm obviously sadly tempted to take. Even though, with the onset of the Great War, Steinlen would always stay true to his pacifist ideals, producing some 200 engravings, posters, hundreds of drawings and postcards... simply replacing the figure of the worker, which had been so dear to him, with that of the trooper. Works of art for sale which, of course, easily found takers.
The exhibition at the Musée de Montmartre follows a chronological and thematic path, tracing Steinlen's career and giving an overview of the wealth of his output through a selection of around a hundred works, including a large proportion of oil paintings, which are less well known than his graphic work, which is also widely represented in the exhibition, as well as sculptures. Following the thread of social art, the exhibition is organised into three main movements: Montmartre and the Chat Noir; the people as the subject and goal of art; and finally, between historical painting and intimate nudes, the relationship with the classic genres of art history, always in the service of a political vision of art. So, all's well that ends well? Even though he chased fame and flattered the bourgeoisie, Steinlen never lost sight of social injustice? The revolutionary vagabond never ceased to speak out behind the notable, even in the salons? Well... I'll let you take a closer look!
Article written by Valibri en Roulotte