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A Trip to Paris (Via the DMA)

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Today, we can hardly open our eyes without seeing an advertisement. But that wasn’t always the case. An exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art takes us to 19th Century Paris and the moment when art embraced commerce.

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Moulin Rouge—La Goulue, 1891, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Photo: Milwaukee Art Museum

The can-can dancers at the Moulin Rouge were the toast of 1890s Paris. And you didn’t necessarily need a ticket to see them. Posters advertising their performances plastered the city’s newly-created wide boulevards.

“I think in some ways these posters invented modern advertising,” says Mary Weaver Chapin, one of the organizers of “Posters of Paris: Toulouse-Lautrec and His Contemporaries.”  “This is the moment when you first get the true integration of image and type, where you get all sorts of subtle messaging and it is also the time when marketers are understanding the importance of how to catch attention and keep it.”

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec’s very first poster, made in 1891, is one of the stars of the show. The words “Moulin Rouge” are splashed across the top in bright red. In the center is the famous can-can dancer La Goulue – The Glutton.

“We know where, we know who – we have La Goulue in the center – and we know why – because she’s this audacious, sexy can can girl,” Chapin says.

The posters capture a time when advertising and technological advances in printing shook up the art world. Parisians knew they were being sold to but didn’t care because the images were so striking. There was even a fad of dressing up as a favorite poster character for costume parties.

More than 100 posters are included in the DMA show, pushing everything from champagne to bicycles. And quite a few of them follow the Toulouse-Lautrec formula: Bold letters, a pretty girl and the promise of the glam life.

“We see her in this poster kicking up her legs, and this froth of petticoats surrounds her,” Chapin says. “Everything’s focused on the center of the composition, which is basically the underparts of La Goulue’s skirts.”

Leave it to the French to discover that sex sells.