“The more you see Toulouse-Lautrec the bigger he gets.”
Many will have formed a lasting impression of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), from John Huston’s Hollywood pot-boiler, Moulin Rouge (1952), in which José Ferrer spends the entire film waddling around on his knees, speaking in strings of bons mots. Watching this film again it was better than I remembered, but its sombre portrait of the artist doesn’t capture the savage wit, the gaiety, the dictatorial tendencies, that were such features of Lautrec’s personality.
Huston’s Toulouse-Lautrec is a tragic figure – a heart, talent and intellect trapped inside a small, deformed body. The real Lautrec was much uglier but less moribund. To compensate for his short stature he was always the first to make a joke at his own expense. He was the leader of the pack, quick with a bawdy joke or an insulting nickname. He was an alcoholic who felt uneasy about anyone who refused to drink with him. Throughout his life Lautrec led a double existence – torn between the aristocratic world of his parents, whom he sought vainly to please, and the Bohemian excesses of Montmartre. That legendary egomaniac, Paul Gauguin, complained that he found Lautrec “too self-centred”!
We catch a glimpse of a complex personality in Toulouse-Lautrec: Paris & the Moulin Rouge, at the National Gallery of Australia, but only a glimpse. Although the show has been wreathed in the same ridiculous hype that attends all exhibitions at the NGA, Ron Radford strikes an apologetic note in his catalogue introduction, listing the reasons why it is difficult to get high quality loans of Lautrec’s work.
It’s worth listening to this admission because the show is heavy on posters and prints, rather than paintings. This may be less of an issue with Lautrec than with other artists, because his graphic output was so voluminous and revolutionary. Within ten years, starting in 1891, he produced 325 lithographs, 30 lithographic posters, 9 drypoints and 4 monotypes.
The problem is that Lautrec’s posters are so famous they have become universal icons of popular culture. Many of his prints, by contrast, are minor works, made in dutiful fulfillment of a commission. This means the show is dominated by images that are already familiar or rather slight. There is a natural tendency for audiences to judge the quality of a blockbuster by the quantity of major works on display, especially paintings. The NGA needs to tread carefully with any show in which original oils are in short supply, because disappointed viewers won’t hurry back next time.
This exhibition of some 100 pieces, put together by the reliable Jane Kinsman, is Australia’s first-ever “full retrospective” of Lautrec’s work only in the sense that it follows his career from the earliest days to the end. There are a lot of important paintings that didn’t make the trip, although we should be thankful there are representative works that deal with all Lautrec’s major themes.
The best of the lot is probably La Golue entering the Moulin Rouge (1892), which adorns the cover of the catalogue. Arm in arm with two female friends, the celebrated cabaret performer, La Golue – AKA. ‘The Glutton’ – looks over the nightclub like a queen surveying her court. Her twisted mouth and haughty expression betray her arrogance. When one adds a bizarre hairstyle and a dress that reveals most of her torso, she comes across as both imperious and vulgar, which is the effect Lautrec must have intended.
We imagine the Moulin Rouge as a swanky, boisterous place, but it was unlike anything we know today. It had a full-sized papier-maché elephant in the courtyard, a shooting gallery, belly dancers and a fortune teller. The main ballroom, where most of the action took place, was described by one guidebook as resembling a railway station. It was a club that offered something for every taste, and had no qualms about catering to the lowest common denominator.
The Moulin Rouge’s star attractions such as La Golue and Jane Avril, were debased Divas – living parodies of the exalted artistry of Sarah Bernhardt and other leading actresses. The British writer, Arthur Symons, said that Avril had an air of “depraved virginity.” It was this hint of depravity that appealed to Lautrec, who was often accused of making these women look ugly rather than beautiful. Some believed that his own deformities led the artist to cut his subjects down to size, but his motives were probably more complicated.
“Ugliness, no matter where it is,” he is reputed to have said, “always has a beautiful side; it’s fascinating to uncover beauty where no-one else can see it.”
In other words, it seems Lautrec agreed with Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” There is no virtue in churning out false, glamorous images of men and women that fail to capture everything that is vital, spirited and idiosyncratic. There is beauty in moments of weakness and insecurity, in finding the flaws in a public image.
When we understand this approach we have a basis for appreciating the subtlety of Lautrec’s portraits and genre scenes. Having studied with masters such as Léon Bonnat and Fernard Cormon, who made their reputations with grand salon pictures, Lautrec rejected these bourgeois fantasies and devoted himself to the life around him. This meant the cafés and cabarets where he sketched and got drunk, and the brothels where he sought solace.
Although his pictures of prostitutes and lesbians were considered scandalous in their day, there is nothing titillating about these works. They do not cater to male fantasies, but reveal the pathos of life in the bordellos, where the girls embrace one another out of simple affection and compassion. The women in pictures such as The two friends (1894) or The sofa (c.1894-95) may not even be lesbians. Lautrec is concerned with intimacy rather than sexuality, realising that a blank expression speaks more eloquently than a lascivious leer. From his own experience he knew sex was a commodity that could be bought and sold, but true intimacy was rare.
It is a hallmark of these brothel pictures, and of so many of Lautrec’s works, that oil paint has been scraped crudely onto canvas or cardboard as if drawn with the brush. The roughness and sparseness of these works was perfectly attuned to his rejection of the slick finish of Salon painting. “Nothing is simpler than to complete pictures in a superficial sense,” he told his cousin, Gabriel. “Never does one lie so cleverly as then.”
By 1899 Lautrec was a physical wreck. Syphilis and booze had taken a terrible toll, and he had been incarcerated in a private clinic when his mental state became dangerously unstable. One of the few pictures of this year that transcends his slide into abjection is Tete-à-tete supper. It features the painted face of Lucy Jourdan, described at various times as a notorious lesbian and an ageing cocotte, although the two are not mutually exclusive. The setting is presumably Le Rat Mort, the café that got its name when an enormous dead rat was discovered in the beer pump.
Unlike the brothel pictures, here Lautrec has concentrated on atmosphere rather than line. Jourdan peers out at us through half-closed eyes, her lipstick a slash of red. The eerie light, the claustrophobic setting and the looseness of the brushwork make this an Expressionist work avant la lettre. One of the most famous Expressionists, Edvard Munch, was a fan of Lautrec’s, who purchased a suite of his prints on first release.
This picture leaves us wondering how Lautrec’s painting might have developed had he lived a normal life span. It also emphasises the yawning gap between his expressive, psychologically acute paintings, and the lithographic posters, which concentrate on formal qualities of design. In famous pieces such as Moulin Rouge: la Golue (1891), or Eldorado: Aristide Bruant (1892), Lautrec simplified his imagery into broad, flat areas of colour, creating an instant visual impact. At his first attempt he trumped the acknowledged king of Parisian poster art, Jules Chéret, by eliminating unnecessary detail and attending closely to the abstract elements in a composition. Over time, certain motifs, such as the long, black gloves of singer, Yvette Guilbert, seemed to take on a life of their own.
Although Lautrec delighted in being the star turn at every party, it was his personal unhappiness that allowed him to look beyond the social masks his subjects wore. His sense of himself as a permanent outsider – both in his deformity and as a déclassé aristocrat in Bohemia – let him stand back and contemplate his work with the detachment of a genuine innovator. He is reputed to have said to a dancer: “Why is it, my dear friend, that the happiness of others makes us feel as if we have been robbed.” One imagines Lautrec snatching at any shred of pleasure that came along, finding in his art a way of confronting and conquering a world in which he could never feel at home.
Toulouse-Lautrec: Paris & the Moulin Rouge, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, December 14, 2012 – April 2, 2013
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, January 5, 2013