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ordinary, so pitifully lacking in animation. What Lautrec has represented is not the woman, who often ended her life miserably, but the performance; not Louise Weber but La Goulue, not Jeanne Beaudon but Jane Avril.
From the earliest items in the exhibition, his gift for portraiture is striking and it underpins all his subsequent work. It is apparent in the sensitive picture of the young Emile Bernard, his fellow-student at Cormon’s school. An early masterpiece is the portrait of Madame Fabre, sitting in a deckchair in her garden and holding a little dog in her lap. Lautrec has a remarkable, almost uncanny sensitivity to his subject, but perceptiveness is untempered by flattery, so that he had little future as a portraitist of the kind of women who expect to be flattered.
As important as the observation of the sitter’s features is the instinctive feeling for the movement of her body, in this case the particular way the torso is thrown forward as she tries to sit upright in the deckchair, causing a slight turning back of the head in compensation. All of this suggests the particularity of a moment captured in transition, and the same effect is conveyed in the style and handling of the paint. The picture is almost a drawing in oils, and the handling of pigments is idiosyncratic: highly diluted with turpentine and applied to absorbent cardboard, they soak in and form a flat effect almost like gouache.
No effort is made to cover the whole pictorial surface and, punctuated with a few stripes of paint, the bare cardboard becomes the canvas of the deckchair. The overall effect, sketchy and unfinished, evokes the impermanent and the ephemeral, and this remains an important element of Lautrec’s work in all media; his lithographs can be even more sparing, leaving large areas blank or implicitly transformed into skin or fabric by the lines around them.
Lautrec’s pictures of prostitutes and brothels draw on such fragile, ephemeral and unfinished effects to convey the impression of lives lived largely in a state of boredom, occasionally touched with glamour and often weighted with weariness and the apprehension of encroaching age.
His view of his subjects is uniquely sympathetic without being sentimental, which means he neither revels pruriently in degradation nor edits out ugliness. Once again, there is perceptiveness, which entails empathy, but without flattery.
Images of theatre and cabaret naturally exploit the sense of the passing moment, often enhanced by the artificial illumination of the footlights, casting upside-down shadows on the face as the performer leans out towards the audience.
But it is above all in his ability to capture the most characteristic movements, the most fleeting but distinctive configurations of torso and limbs that Lautrec conveys the stage presence of each of his subjects; in their very nature, these are not attitudes that can be held as a pose, but which must be recalled by the artist almost in a single calligraphic gesture.
The skill is akin to that of the caricaturist, and it is in the same way that his posters convert each of the performers already mentioned into what are in one sense monumental caricatures. But if they are perhaps his most memorable creations, it is because Lautrec here combines his gift for movement and his sense of the momentary and insubstantial with a vivid simplicity of design, based on the dramatic silhouettes borrowed from Japanese Ukiyoe prints.
His first and biggest poster is a masterpiece of simplification in a complex composition. It was for the then newly opened Moulin Rouge, where there was no stage and the performers danced in an open space surrounded by patrons: hence the shadow fringe of spectators in the background. The centre of the composition is occupied by the figure of La Goulue seen from behind with one leg in the air and turning to see our reaction to what her upturned dress has revealed, but which is here left to the imagination as blank paper.
The composition is framed in the foreground by the shadowed silhouette of her dancing partner Valentin le desosse (literally, ‘‘ boneless’’), a gentleman amateur who performed for pleasure and not for money.
La Goulue is also seen, incidentally, in a painting of the same year, arriving at the Moulin Rouge accompanied by a younger dancer with the suggestive stage name ‘‘ Nini les Pattes-en-l’air’’ (Nini with her paws in the air, no doubt alluding both to her dancing and other skills). La Goulue herself looks weary and unutterably jaded; again, Lautrec had an unerring eye for the difference between the performer on and off stage, in and out of character.
Other famous posters include two different versions of Aristide Bruant with his hat and red scarf, although a smaller black and white lithograph recalls the sardonic character of a performer whose specialty, apparently, was to insult the audience. I knew the owner of a cheap restaurant in the Rue Saint-Denis years ago who was like a last embodiment of the same tradition, and who entertained his patrons by insulting them at random and conducting an improvised verbal Punch and Judy show with his wife while we ate.
There is the portrait of Caudieux too, in his white tie and tails, and the famous image of Jane Avril, and a much more sinister poster advertising the popular contemporary novel La Reine de Joie, which shows a cocotte kissing a fat balding Jewish banker on the nose; this was just before the Dreyfus affair, contemporary with the Panama Canal scandal in which financial fraud and political scandal led to the first great outbreak of modern anti-Semitism.
There is always a dark and even desperate edge to the world that Toulouse-Lautrec depicts. Poverty, disease, abuse and alcoholism were the realities behind the illusion of pleasure and gaiety; but no one could capture the animation and excitement of that world as effectively as he did, without ever glossing over the perennial presence of death as its necessary and ineluctable shadow, hinted at in gaunt features and exhausted bodies.
There are some further contemporary French posters in the main collection, by Cheret and others, which only serve to confirm Lautrec’s unique genius in this medium. For all their virtues, they fall constantly into kitsch and grandiloquence, and they are explicit to the point of platitude; only Lautrec, in conjuring up the floating world of Montmartre, knew how much to leave out.
(1891) by Lautrec