Toulouse-lautrec: Paris and the Moulin Rouge

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Christo­pher Allen

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

The Sofa Moulin Rouge: La Goulue


(c.1894-95) and, be­low,

(1891) by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

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