La Couture Comique
May 7, 2013 | by Robert Pranzatelli
Lucien Métivet’s name may not be familiar to many contemporary readers or art aficionada, and placed alongside that of his friend and fellow art student Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec it may seem, by comparison, thoroughly obscure. A century ago, however, Métivet was a hugely popular belle epoque artist, celebrated not so much for his paintings as for his posters, book and magazine illustrations, advertising art, and—especially—his humorous drawings. He embodied, in the 1890s and after, an idea that the world has only now begun to embrace: that a cartoonist and fine artist can be one and the same.
His 1893 poster portraying chanteuse Eugénie Buffet as a woman of the cold streets not only advertised her performances at the club Ambassadeurs; it immortalized her stage persona and made Métivet’s name at the age of thirty. It remains as much a part of the visual legacy of the era as Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters of Buffet’s mentor Aristide Bruant. But Métivet’s stock in trade for the decades that followed was drawing, swiftly and prolifically, for publication—whether supplying covers and cartoons for Le Rire (Laughter), the most popular humor journal in Paris, or dozens of illustrations for an edition of Maupassant or Balzac, or for a lesbian-themed erotic novel (or two) by Pierre Louÿs, or for the first two adventure-filled volumes of Paul d’Ivoi’s Voyages Excentriques, a hugely successful (and conspicuously deliberate) competitor to Jules Verne’s Les Voyages Extraordinaires.
Quantity and artistic quality, however, rarely go hand in hand, especially under deadline, and an undiscriminating catch-all collection of L. M.’s work is liable to make a poor impression, cluttered as it is with examples of the slapdash and the merely adequate. That the appreciation of a prolific artist requires selectivity is no surprise; the surprise, instead, is the insouciance of the exceptions, the fact that among drawings printed as amusing diversions a century ago there are those that still charm, still resurface with a wink and a smile to inspire a reciprocal smile across a divide of so many generations. The survival of the sunny and comic, as if blithely stepping over world wars, cultural upheavals, and time itself, is always a kind of miracle.
And now it is spring again, a time when ladies, and at least a few gentlemen, think of fashion. Métivet’s Modes Potagères (Vegetable Fashion), a full-page color illustration from the April 6, 1901, issue of Le Rire included a brief text as caption, which encourages us to note, and savor, such features as the lettuce bodice, pickle sleeves, and artichoke ruffle on the outfit of the dark-haired beauty in the pumpkin toque; and the beetroot princess dress with its green-pea flowerbed and cardoon collar with curly-endive neck ruff on the elegant lady of the cauliflower hat and carrot umbrella. With its precisely enumerated whimsicality, cheerful colors, and the evident and so-human pride and pleasure in the faces and postures of the models, this is an image perpetually floriferous.
Nine years later, another two fashionable ladies appear, in a more understated but perhaps even wittier display. Les Deux Écoles (The Two Schools) ran as a full page in a 1910 issue of Fantasio, a post-Dreyfus-affair sibling of Le Rire launched in 1907 with an interest in theatre, nightlife, and bohemia. Here two women clad in the linear haute couture of the day (or at least Métivet’s interpretation of same) visit the Louvre. They pause before a life-size portrait of a woman of an earlier age, their trim verticality in stark contrast to the regally reclining figure immersed in her dress’s sumptuous, expansive curves. Yet while the two schools of the drawing’s title can perhaps be handily identified as eighteenth-century costumes and art nouveau, the image suggests much more than a clever aesthetic contrast. Questions arise from its seeming simplicity.
Although only the two contemporary women’s outfits and the alternating tiles on the marble floor have a touch of color—a pale green that differentiates their world from the historical past they observe in the painting—the drawing itself gradually reveals a lushness: like the outfits of the two au courant women, it pretends to be aesthetically economical but is in reality lavish. What’s more, this fashionable encounter with the past has a looking-glass quality, slyly underscored by the parallel hand-on-hip posture of both the museum portrait’s subject and the contemporary woman farthest to the left in Métivet’s drawing. Likewise there is a mirrored ambiguity—perhaps a hint of imperiousness or another, more neutral, quality—in the facial expressions of this woman in the present whose face we can see (her companion’s face is hidden by the brim of an enormous hat) and that of her precursor in the portrait. What is the relation between them, and between the past and the present? And what to make of the woman whose face cannot be seen, but whose handbag dangles out in front of her like an awkward, ostentatious symbol of wealth? Despite being represented solely by—indeed, concealed by—her material possessions, she seems very human.
Whatever its secrets, Les Deux Écoles forcefully conjures the sense of time in contrast, the sensibility that strikes when an awareness of history reminds us that we too are historical persons, living inside a time, created by it, shaped by its culture. And having captured an aspect of time’s essence that contains several novels’ worth of possibilities, this long-forgotten magazine drawing has itself transcended time.
Modes Potagères takes a notably different path to the present—in the artist’s exuberant use of color and his more jubilant tone and temper, as well as in his purposes—but both illustrations celebrate and satirize fashion, and derive an animation and vitality from their subjects—to enchant as thoroughly today as when they were new.
Images from private collection. Used by permission.
Robert Pranzatelli is the founding editor of the Folio Club, an independent publishing project. He is also a longtime staff member of Yale University Press.