Toulouse-lautrec found a place and a pur­pose among the poor, the pimps and the pros­ti­tutes of the Parisian un­der­belly, writes Miriam Cosic

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

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

La Goulue En­ter­ing the Moulin Rouge The Sofa Made­moi­selle Eglan­tine’s Troupe Moulin Rouge: La Goulue ToulouseLautrec: Paris & the Moulin Rouge

Clockwise from left, (1892);


(1896); and

(1891) in the NGA ex­hi­bi­tion

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