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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

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.

Left,

be­low,

(1891) by Lautrec

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