MASTER OF MONTMARTRE
Toulouse-lautrec found a place and a purpose among the poor, the pimps and the prostitutes of the Parisian underbelly, writes Miriam Cosic
ASCHOOL of thought believes biography should have no bearing on our reading of art, literature, philosophy or other intellectual work. But some biographies are too compelling to be ignored. Take French artist Henri Marie Raymond de ToulouseLautrec. For a man who suffered so many physical and mental disabilities, he was astonishingly focused and productive during his short life.
What’s more, he was an aristocrat determined to make his mark in a vocation that, until recently, had been a glorified trade. It was only with the advent of romanticism, after all, that artists had ceased to be guildsmen and servants, albeit often ambitious and financially successful ones, and had begun to define themselves as a class apart: men of creative genius and moral critics of conventional society.
With his stunted legs and constant illnesses, and eventually alcoholic and syphilitic, Lautrec was incapable of following the horse-riding, ballroom dancing traditions of his cavalier forebears. Instead, he determined early to make a career as an artist and not merely be a rich dilettante.
Then, in the milieu of the Parisian demimonde, he found a place and purpose that had eluded him in the grand chateaus and refined hotels particuliers of his class. That sleazy life would kill him early, but it gave him an immortality that would have eluded him if he had played out his expected destiny.
Jane Kinsman, senior curator at the National Gallery of Australia, quotes Lautrec’s friend, painter Francois Gauzi, who said Lautrec found his ‘‘ promised land’’ when he moved into Montmartre. The themes that absorbed him were individual character and the routines of daily life in the underbelly of Paris: watching the poor, the pimps and the prostitutes, and the boulevardiers who employed their services in the gritty arrondissement, he found material in abundance.
His eye was both amoral and unforgiving, which made him a perceptive portrait painter who searched deep below the surface of face and gesture to find psychological types and archetypes.
‘‘ Lautrec concentrated on putting popular culture into a fine art context,’’ Kinsman says. ‘‘ Society ladies may have sought him out initially, when he became known, but they certainly didn’t commission portraits. He wasn’t a flatterer. He took a very hard look at people.’’ Even some of the demimondaines he used as models were less than enthusiastic about the results.
Kinsman has curated an exhibition, Toulouse-Lautrec: Paris & the Moulin Rouge, which opens at the NGA in Canberra next week. It is the first full retrospective of the artist’s work that Australia has seen. A landmark show of posters and prints was held in Brisbane in 1991; and several of the works have been incorporated in various blockbuster exhibitions of French art since. But no comprehensive overview has yet been taken.
Kinsman has borrowed works from 31 institutions and individuals throughout the world in order to show a broader and deeper career than anyone who knows only the artist’s work from the cabaret advertisements that used to adorn student hallways in a show of risque sophistication might suspect.
Beyond the famous, almost cliched prints, however, we find a well-schooled painter who used and developed techniques borrowed from older artists he admired, notably Degas.
Lautrec began his studies under conventional teachers but was soon under the sway of the impressionists and their obsession with light and immediacy, and their rejection of the polished surfaces — and, it might be said, of the hypocrisy — of the academy.
‘‘ Degas was experimental in terms of adding turpentine to his oil so that he was getting a great sketchiness,’’ Kinsman says, and her words evoke the paintings that hung in the exhibition of Degas’s work that she curated at the NGA in early 2009, a starting point for this show. ‘‘ Lautrec adopted that, working on cardboard. But in some of his later works you can see exposed canvas and so on, and his brushwork was just amazing — full of line and zing and multicolours. To be able to see the layers of colour is just fabulous.’’
That joy contrasts with the dreadful biographical detail of Lautrec’s life and the social context he documented, which Kinsman describes evocatively in the catalogue.
‘‘ The life Lautrec depicted was tough,’’ she agrees. One of her chapters is titled Houses of Tolerance, a fancy name for brothels, where women essentially lived in captivity, an inversion of what today we would call sex slavery, imposed by the authorities for the sake of public health and morals. ‘‘ But Lautrec wasn’t judgmental,’’ Kinsman says. ‘‘ He captures the characters, the lives of these people.’’
Not being judgmental is a discreet way to put it. Lautrec lived in brothels for periods at a time, an observer as well as a client, capturing the lives of the women. He ‘‘ painted two distinct types of brothel image: those that focus on lesbian sexuality, and those depicting the moments of boredom while waiting for clients’’, as one caption in the catalogue has it.
Perhaps a saving grace of these pictures is that they don’t glamorise or romanticise the
Clockwise from left, (1892);
(1891) in the NGA exhibition