DANCING WITH THE DEMIMONDE
Toulouse-lautrec: Paris and the Moulin Rouge
IN the early 13th century, the civilisation of southern France, with its great romanesque cathedrals and troubadour poets who made Provencal, the langue d’oc, the first modern vernacular capable of literary expression, was devastated by war. The invaders were part of the only crusade launched internally within the Christian world and their aim was to root out the heresy of the Cathars, also known as the Albigensians, from the city that was their capital.
Exactly what the Albigensians believed and what they did remains obscure because their enemies destroyed so much and left us a deliberately lurid picture of unbridled sexual licence and various sacrilegious or obscene cult practices. But it seems they were influenced by the Manichean heresy, which had already affected the church earlier in its history, holding that while God had made the soul, Satan had made the body, which was thus inherently corrupt. This had serious consequences for Christian morality, but especially for theology, since it made it impossible to believe in the dual nature of Christ.
The Cathar resistance, eventually overcome and followed by tens of thousands of exe-
National Gallery of Australia, to April 2 cutions, was led by the Count of Toulouse, a powerful independent prince before the destruction of the south. More than 600 years later, his distant descendant, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), was born in Albi. Stunted physical development resulting from inbreeding — his parents were first cousins — made him a natural outsider, and whatever the truth about his ancestors, Lautrec became the artist par excellence of the moral decadence of his own time.
Paris in the later 19th century was an ocean of prostitution, which extended from the most expensive mistresses and kept women of the demimonde to dancers and actresses, shopgirls and barmaids and, finally, the residents of the maisons closes, the brothels, which ranged from quality establishments to cheap and sordid knocking-shops for a poorer clientele, staffed by correspondingly older and less appealing veterans of the trade.
The situation was not new in itself, except that the growth of the urban population provided more clients for the brothels and that of the middle class meant more demand for mistresses and kept women. But what was new at the end of the century was a fascination with this world, which was no doubt partly the corollary of the tightening of standards of Victorian respectability; the theme of the double life is also prominent in such books as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) or Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). A gener- ation earlier, with Les Fleurs du mal (1857), Baudelaire had been a precursor in evoking the dark fascination of prostitution, while Manet’s Olympia (1863) baldly stated the facts of the profession in all their banality.
It was Degas who initiated a sustained interest in the lives of dancers and prostitutes, and he is also the most important stylistic influence on the work of Toulouse-Lautrec, as we can see at once in Jane Kinsman’s fine exhibition at the NGA: Degas’s emphasis on the figure — with an instinctive feeling for movement — rather than the landscape, which sets him apart from the other impressionists, his linear brushwork, alive with attention, and even some of his characteristic colour harmonies are everywhere visible.
But while Degas had painted the world of the dance, in which graceless proletarian girls could momentarily be made beautiful by the magic of art, and revealed the boredom and claustrophobia of brothel life, it was Lautrec who discovered the new world of cabaret that was flourishing at the end of the century on the hill of Montmartre, north of Paris, and beyond its city limits. Here — in a special zone excised from normal life and given over to pleasure, like the Yoshiwara district of old Tokyo — sexual indulgence was combined with a new kind of boisterous fun in the dance and comedy routines of the performers Lautrec often helped to discover and then immortalised in his prints and posters.
For who would even know of La Goulue, Valentin le desosse, Yvette Guilbert, Jane Avril, Aristide Bruant or Caudieux without these extraordinary images? It is touching to compare Lautrec’s pictures with surviving photographs of his subjects: here we have, ostensibly, the literal imprint of their features, which Lautrec frequently distorts in his own work, and not necessarily in order to make them more beautiful, and yet they are so small, so
(c.1894-95) and, below,
(1891) by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec