Reviews -- Georges Seurat, 1859-1891 by Robert L. Herbert with Francoise Cachin, Anne Distel, Susan Alyson Stein and Gary Tinterow / Toulouse-Lautrec by Richard Thomson with Anne Roquebert, Claire Freches-Thory and Daniele Devynck

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ROBERT L. HERBERT, Georges Seurat, 1859-1891, with Francoise Cachin, Anne Distel, Susan Alyson Stein, and Gary Tinterow, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1991. Pp. x + 450; 244 color pls., 108 black-and-white ills. $70.

RICHARD THOMSON, Toulouse-Lautrec, with Anne Roquebert, Claire Freches-Thory, and Daniele Devynck, New York and London, Yale University Press, 1991. Pp. 557; 180 color pls., 800 black-and-white ills. $65.

It can be tempting to think of Seurat and Toulouse-Lautrec as flip sides of the same modernist coin: the former, a reclusive and meticulous technician, a builder of pictures; the latter, a profligate extrovert, a prodigious dauber. What they share is that familiar avant-garde preoccupation with the world of low-class leisure and entertainment, and with the invention of the appropriate pictorial means with which to represent it. Between the two of them, one can just about grasp both the diversity and the limits of modernism's engagement with the city in the 1880s and early nineties. Put Chahut, say, next to Moulin Rouge--La Goulue. Or better yet, Jeune Femme se poudrant next to L'Inspection medicale.

Thanks to fortuitous scheduling, these kinds of correspondences and polarities were implicit--but not quite explicit--when massive surveys of Seurat and Lautrec hit the blockbuster exhibition circuit in 1991-92. It goes without saying that events of this nature focus on individual painters rather than their relation to a diverse field of visual practices; we go to assess pictures in the context of a career, and do the rest of the assessing elsewhere. So it went two years ago at the Seurat and Toulouse-Lautrec exhibitions, amid remarkable gallery installations and an abundance of well-intentioned documentary materials.(1) The images were splendid--some of them even revelatory--and they said worlds about determination, engagement, and originality; what they could not quite tell us, a hundred years after the fact, was how we might go about accounting for them.

That responsibility falls to the catalogues produced in conjunction with these spectacles. By definition, Robert L. Herbert's Seurat and Richard Thomson's Toulouse-Lautrec are devised to complement the exhibition format, with detailed accounts of the assembled pictures, overarching summaries of the artists' careers, and selections of related documentation. They are also conceived and marketed as definitive monographs on Seurat and Lautrec, the inaugural publicity for which is provided by the exhibitions themselves. This is a happy--and familiar--amalgamation of publishing strategies, scholarship, and public service, but it has the effect of proliferating a somewhat unwieldy genre of art-historical literature in which the incongruous objectives of the "catalogue" and the "monograph" are united in the service of a presumably thoroughgoing "re-evaluation" of an artist's work. The resulting hybrid inherits some of the least felicitous characteristics of its antecedents: from the reference-oriented "catalogue" comes a necessarily fragmented narrative structure ("entries") devoted to a broad selection of individual objects--the limits of which are defined both by curatorial motives and the terms of loans and bequests; from the "monograph" derives the ponderous burden of explaining an individual career by means of an entire oeuvre--an often somewhat hermetic exercise in which an account of the artist is "put to the test" of the pictures (or vice versa).

Given these difficulties, it is not surprising that both Herbert and Thomson make welcome overtures to contextualization from the very beginning: Herbert, by proposing to find "the whole artist, poet and technician" (p. 5) and to explore the full range of Seurat's subjects "in the context of the means [he] used to depict them" (p. 4); and Thomson, by electing to relocate "Lautrec's images and career within the complex and contradictory cultural patterns to which they were geared . …