Context Is Everything; A New Tate Britain Exhibit Explores How Different Painters Approached the Same Subject Matter

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Byline: Tara Pepper

The first exhibition of works by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in London, at the Goupil Gallery in May 1898, was part of a carefully planned attempt to launch the French artist in a wealthy new market, building on the popularity his advertising posters had already achieved in the British capital. Yet despite meticulous preparation, not one picture was sold. The public mostly stayed away, as did the press. Toulouse-Lautrec's French contemporary Edgar Degas--whose own work "L'Absinthe" had recently created a furor in London--and British peer Walter Sickert were creating an international following. But Toulouse-Lautrec's louche subjects spoke to Victorian Britain of a degenerate foreign culture, and represented a threshold of decadence it did not wish to cross.

No longer. A new Tate Britain exhibit, "Degas, Sickert and Toulouse-Lautrec, London and Paris 1870-1910" (through Jan. 15, 2006), puts the controversial artist in the context of his contemporaries. By using not just the three headliners but their lesser-known peers, the show traces the innovations of fin de siecle art. As such it's only the latest example of a shift away from monographic exhibitions: the Tate exhibit follows the worldwide success of blockbusters like "Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South," in 2002, and last year's "Turner Whistler Monet." At one time, says Stephen Deuchar, the museum's director, "one studied the work of a lone genius in a garret, producing work as if inspired by heaven alone." But over the past 20 years, scholars have put greater emphasis on understanding art as the creation of a specific social and cultural milieu. "Now people want to discover more about the context," says Richard Thomson, curator of the Tate Britain exhibit. "They want to discover new artists--so why not [place] some lesser figures against the great ones?"

Earlier attempts at such sweeping shows--notably the Royal Academy's 2002 "Paris: Capital of the Arts 1900-1960"--were criticized for a lack of focus and depth. …