Jules-Alexandre Grün (1868–1934)
Grün was born in Paris on May 25, 1868 in a family probably of Alsatian refugees (his mother’s maiden name was Leidenfrost) and was meant to become a tradesman. A compromise was reached with his family where he first studied decoration, doing a stint at Lavastre’s atelier at the Opera, and finally joined Guillemet ־ a dominant figure of academic painting, who nevertheless was linked to the Impressionist School. Grün’s talent was precocious. As early as 1886, one of his paintings was accepted at the Salon des Artistes Frangais, a laudable success (1) as he was merely eighteen years old. His work became a feature of the Salon and was awarded an honorable mention in 1897, before rapidly being declared inelegible to compete. He charted a perfect course, rapidly becoming the accredited official painter. By the end of his career he served as member of the committee and of the jury, and received the Legion of Honor.
For all that Grün is far from being an industrious young man — quite the opposite.
Following a chance meeting with Xanrof (2), one of the regulars of the Chat Noir, he illustrates a collection of his songs. This endeavor in turn opens the door to Montmartre where he settles in the beginning of 1890. His studio, located at 48 Rue d’Orsel, next to the Boulevard Rochechouart, is in the heart of the district where cabaret singers and artists lead a merry Bohemian life. He soon joins them and becomes a full-fledged member.
In addition to his two emperor’s first names, he sports an Assyrian beard and premature baldhead. Fursy, a cabaret singer and an old friend, recalls in his life story “this merry live-wire was the life and soul of every successful 4 z’Arts ball”. Every day he goes for drinks at the Auberge du Clou, meeting up with his cronies in a “collective and usual” manner. One drinks a lot in Montmartre, laughs as much, but also produces a great deal of creative work. Here Grün encounters his elders: Roedel, Truchet, Steinlen, Willette, who on the average are ten years his senior. Although they all are painters, they make their livings illustrating magazines, accepting to being referred to as “humorists” and organizing one of the most sought after salons under this trademark. In this way Grün contributes to many publications: L’Assiette au Beurre (n° 104, “Leurs Gueules”), La Caricature, Le Rire, Le Courrier Frangais, Le Fin de Siecle. Like his friends, he willingly turns to decoration. It is well known that he painted frescoes for cabarets such as the 4 z’Arts or the Incoherents. But this is just a bread-and-butter activity and Grün soon becomes famous in an area where he outdoes all of his comrades: the poster.
Aside from an initial atypical attempt in 1891 (3), his first posters are dated 1893, and are linked to an attraction that was all the rage at the time in cabarets-shadowgraph projections.
Henri Riviere invented the concept in 1889 at the Chat Noir and immediately took the art to an outstanding artistic level (4). His “Marche a I’Etoile” was performed hundreds of times. “L’Epopee” by Caran d’Ache was a hit as well. “Poleon Revue” illustrated by Griin at the Decadents was no doubt a humorous caricature of I’Epopee, Grun continues on the boulevards in 1895 for an unlikely Joyeux Theatre where, next to the inevitable Willette, he portrayed a play entitled “Nuit Blanche”.
Maindron (5), in Les Affiches Illustrees, rightly notes that they are both designed in a similar way:
“In these strange and well designed posters, the characters are silhouetted against the white paper”. Grun also signs a poster for Strack at the Divan Japonais ־ “Silhouettes — affiches Grun”.
He has also undoubtedly seen Valloton’s engravings, in particular Les Amateurs d’estampes (1892), used for advertising by the dealer Sagot which directly inspires his poster for the Decadents in 1893.
This also applies to a poster for Le Carillon, seen this time from the inside, where the boisterous atmosphere terrorizes a maidservant.
In 1896, seven posters by Grun are displayed at the huge Reims Circus poster show. Two portraits are added to the aforementioned posters: Sevianne and Valerie Leotti, where both color and Cheret’s influence appear. A poster for an insurance agent, currently untraceable, was also on display. In the following years, Grun, who is nearing thirty, finds a style of his own. In 1895, the Carillon changes management and its owner, Millanvoye, hires young Fursy as artistic director. In the previously unused garden he creates a Comic Summer Court of Current Affairs ־ “Les Assises du Carillon”. He barely has time to commission a poster by Grun, before moving on to new adventures. For the first time this poster reveals the basic elements of Grun’s style: Two basic colors — red and particularly the black background that engulfs the clothing of one of the characters. 1897 is a turning point: For the “Vachalcade” (6), a big fair in Montmartre including a parade, he designs a poster destined to recruit young local girls to liven up his float He also designs a poster for one of the shows at the Nouveau Theatre (7). Here policemen appear for the first time ־ their uniform buttons and white gloves standing out against the black background are enough to suggest their silhouettes. The fair is a financial disaster and he represents “Le Bal du Deficit” organized at the Moulin Rouge in order to fill the gap. Depicting a scene from a trade fair he uses color in vigorous flats, no longer related to Cheret’s style, but where the fluidity of the design is akin to Ibels’. Finally, for Trianon, he paints a group portrait of the top chansonniers. From now on Grun becomes one of their accredited painters. 1898 is the year of his triumph with an emblematic poster: Le Treteau de Tabarin.
Fursy left the Carillon at the end of 1895 in order to open the Treteau de Tabarin with his partner Ropiquet. It was an instant success, but in order to consolidate his position, he sent for Grun in 1898. The result is magnificent. All the stylistic elements of Grun’s trademark are present: Plenty of red, a dab of green, a black background and white paper. The foreground shows a reveler and two harlots in a brisk, joyous and spirited design. The man’s shirtfront stands out against the black background enabling the viewer to imagine two policemen in the background thanks to their buttons and belts (in this instance Fursy and Ropiquet).
This use of black is a true graphical invention and is at once linked to its creator — one could refer to a “black background a la Grun”. The orders pour in, In the only interview which we know of, granted to Paul Deverney for The Poster (8), Grun declares: “I like posters a lot, and this kind of work has always appealed to me, even at my beginnings as an artist. I am under no specific strain to create them, I accept the orders as they come in, but I do not pursue them, One exhausts oneself at creating posters, and in the long run, one is compelled to repeat oneself,” If Grun attempts to single out Cheret and his followers who are doomed to this activity, he overdoes it a bit. Although it is clear that he is not begging for commissions and that he is certainly able to work with great ease, rapidly and with definite skill, it is precisely thanks to his self-created artistic expressions that he delightedly repeats himself — I even suspect him of being a bit lazy.
For example, his poster for “Le Violon”, which immediately followed “Le Treteau de Tabarin” is a pure copy: Two policemen encircle a girl instead of two girls surrounding a reveler. His posters for two variety shows (“Revue a Poivre”, and “C’est d’un Raid”) are identical — only the image is reversed. However, the end result is always a success since Grun uses a specimen of womanhood that bluntly represents the sex bomb corresponding to the current canons of beauty: Ample bosom, wasp waist and curvaceous rump. She is painted with lively colored flats that emphasize her figure. In comparison La Cherette looks like a young girl at her first communion. Moreover, I suggest that, as we refer to the “Cherette”, that Grun’s women be called “Grunettes”. Admittedly, most of his commissions were for the new successful formula — variety shows — whose titles and subjects were of a sheer bawdiness typical to the fin de siecle where the double-entendre prevailed. Whether it be for La Cigale, La Scala, La Pepiniere or Le Moulin Rouge, Griin created licentious posters which perfectly fit the trend. Moreover, he was not averse to commercial commissions having a strong predilection for the worlds of cycling, automobile or tourism.
Although commissions are flowing, Grun’s success can be also measured through the enthusiasm of the collectors fighting over his posters. Griin is high on their list, with three plates in Les Mattres de L’Affiche, the pantheon of the poster album published by Chaix.
Above all he is the darling of de Crauzat, the poster columnist for L’Estampe et L’Affiche from 1897 to 1899. These are the years of the poster craze, when collectors are willing to go to great lengths –including bribing the billstickers –in order to obtain the coveted posters (9). While the public is rushing to see the saucy shows advertised by Griin’s posters, these same works have an identical appeal for poster maniacs. Beginning in 1898 Griin is the only artist to incorporate a small white ring in his posters, stipulating that if it is not virgin, the poster cannot be sold. The vast majority of the posters which have been uncovered have lost this virginity, which not only tells us a great deal about the effectiveness of this process, but also about Grun’s popularity and the intensity of the parallel trade at the time. Griin now weds a most respectable performer, Miss SToutain, the daughter of a paymaster, and beginning in 1901 lives at 31 Boulevard Berthier in the XVIIth arrondissement — home to many successful artists.
The bohemian life of Montmartre is fading — as the constantly nagging Fursy notices — “another guy that turned out badly”. Grun’s style continues to develop. His palette grows richer, the colors become more evident and his radical, minimal style logically evolves towards an approach closer to painting to which he now devotes more and more time. In 1911 his huge painting “Un Vendredi au Salon des Artistes” establishes his reputation. His still-lifes and genre paintings, well executed but appallingly trite, enable him to lead a comfortable life.
Nonetheless he does not scorn the poster art that he still practices with evident pleasure and which also enables him to meet the costs engendered by his new way of life. An advertisement, essentially of a commercial nature and with seemingly exclusive rights, commissioned by the printer Herold (subsequent to 1910, since it shows the “La Scala” poster ordered by Fursy when he took over the establishment), depicts his latest creations. This is new, in as much as he never had an accredited printer in his career (Herold is primarily an agent who obviously brings him new clients.) He works as well with Chaix, Bourgerie and Verneau. During his time with Herold he even patronizes the Daubendis print shop that utilizes rotary presses with aluminum plates. The use of lithographic stones — heavy and not very handy for large runs — starts to disappear by the turn of the century.
After the war, Grun only accepts commissions for friends, essentially for exhibitions. He suffers from Parkinson’s disease, a painful and debilitating ailment, and dies in 1938. Strangely overlooked, Grun amply deserves a book devoted to his work. He could be recognized as a privileged witness of Montmartre and the shows of its heydays, but I believe that he should primarily be recognized as a graphic arts pioneer, greatly superior to most of his contemporaries,
When all is said and done, beneath all the small curvaceous women and the ruddy revelers, one somehow overlooked revolutionary inventions: The presence of shadow-less black, the portrayal of characters through the use of simple details and a miserly use of color, constitute a procedure akin to Beggarstaff’s or Holwein’s techniques. He is certainly pursuing the same quest: Developing an artistic vocabulary specific to posters.
His compositions herald the best of Paul Colin for the music hall of the twenties. This fact probably went unnoticed since Grun was a dabbler in graphic arts and lived in the different world of academic painting, his area of predilection, This should not prevent us, even in spite of himself, from considering him as a pioneer of the modern poster ■