An out-of-the-blue phone call in the fall of 1976 to the Art Gallery of Ontario has resulted in the Toronto institution becoming the permanent home of one of finest collections of lithographs by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec ever held in private hands.
As a "bonus," the vintage Lautrecs' entry into the gallery is being accompanied by an eye-blowing, mind-popping donation of more than 65 psychedelic posters from the United States and Canada, dating from the mid-1960s through the early 1970s. Almost half of them promote concerts by the Doors, the era-defining Los Angeles rock band famous for such songs as Light My Fire and Riders on the Storm.
Included in the Doors package is an embroidered red velvet vest worn by the group's lead singer, Jim "the Lizard King" Morrison, plus yellow foolscap sheets with Morrison's handwritten lyrics to two of his greatest songs, When the Music's Over and Strange Days.
From an art historical perspective, though, it's the Lautrecs - indelible pictures of fin-de-siècle bars and cabarets, dance halls and theatres, bistros and circuses that are "the jewel in the crown" - according to the AGO's curator of prints and drawings and deputy director of research, Katharine Lochnan. Although highly regarded as a painter, Lautrec's most characteristic work, his claim to fame since his death in 1901 at 36 are his posters.
The AGO Lautrecs - they number 35 posters and prints as well as 20 other pieces of "ephemera" from the French artist (including cover designs for magazines and novels, books he illustrated, menu designs, theatre programs) - and the rock posters are from the estate of Ross Scott, a Manhattan financier who died of throat cancer in January, 2009.
It was Scott who, during a visit to Toronto nearly 35 years ago, contacted Lochnan, then the AGO's newly appointed curator of prints and drawings. How many Lautrecs did the gallery have, Scott asked. When Lochnan told him it had just one faded print, Scott was delighted, Lochnan recalled recently with a laugh. "Then he said, 'Well, I have a very fine collection of Lautrecs and I'm looking for a good home for them.' "
It turns out that Scott and his life partner, Don Muller, "really liked the feel of Toronto," finding it "a very friendly place … welcoming to gay couples," Lochnan said. Another of Toronto's advantages was that, unlike New York, none of its museums and galleries had substantial Lautrec holdings.
Over the years Scott continued to build and refine his Lautrec collection with the tacit understanding that at some point the works would come together in the AGO. "When I'd go and visit," Lochnan recalled, "there was a small fridge that always had lots of Champagne and we'd view the latest Lautrecs on the easel, glasses in hand, and toast them coming to Canada."
Diagnosed with cancer in 1999, Scott drafted a will that instructed that the majority of his collection should go to the AGO upon his death.
Scott forsook buying Lautrecs in the mid-nineties when asking prices became prohibitive. With help from the AGO's Michael Parke-Taylor (he retired as the gallery's curator of modern art in January this year), he shifted his collecting impulse to 1960s rock posters, buying mint or near-mint originals by Victor Moscoso, Stanley Mouse and Vancouver's Bob Masse, among many others. As Parke-Taylor notes in a research report, Scott saw these artifacts as "an extension" of his Lautrec holdings - "a magical insight," in the words of AGO director Matthew Teitelbaum. Indeed, for Parke-Taylor, "the integration of text and image, along with the floriated patterns and bright, flat colours in many psychedelic posters … share an aesthetic with the art nouveau/symbolist prints" of late 19th-century Europe.
Spurred by Scott's anticipated gift, the AGO began a thorough study of its holdings and discovered "we had a very respectable base for a collection" - posters from the Russian, Chinese and Hungarian revolutions, a large Alphonse Mucha lithograph, works by such Lautrec contemporaries as Louis Rhead, Edmond Aman-Jean and Paul Berthon, donated by Toronto art lovers Sondra and Allan Gotlieb. In 2005, the gallery bought two French Revolution posters, dated 1792.
At present, the AGO is looking at mounting an exhibition of selected psychedelic posters some time in the next six months. As for the Lautrecs, a smattering may go on display before year's end - but Lochnan has ambitions for a "big, strong" exhibition in two or three years.
Meanwhile, Teitelbaum is delighting in the high-art/pop-culture dialogue the gift promises to spark. "I never imagined the AGO would acquire Jim Morrison's vest but, in this context, it animates the spirit of art in such a way that is, frankly, irresistible."