An extraordinary collection of Toulouse-lautrec’s work exposes the real Paris, writes ANDREW STEPHENS.
Montmartre bristles with the pride of having once been an edgy place. Seedy, and a haven for avant- garde artists such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, it retains some rustic traces – a 1622 windmill here, a lovely vineyard on the hill over there – but it little resembles the bawdy, rough village it once was. In the late 19th century, though, Lautrec was well known amid this neighbourhood’s underbelly of cafes, cabarets and bordellos. The ‘‘Dwarf of Montmartre’’, as he was known, loved to court notoriety.
He achieved that. One reviewer, Felix Feneon, wrote in 1893 that Lautrec had ‘‘a hell of a lot of guts and nerve’’ and was unrivalled in ‘‘painting pictures of rich old buggers getting sloshed with tarts who slobber kisses all over them to get their money’’.
Lautrec was only 36 when, true to his bohemian world, he died from a confluence of alcoholism and venereal disease. Had he lived longer, it is hard to imagine how his innovative, boldcoloured work could have improved on its unusual cropping, silhouettes, blocks of colour and pareddown composition inspired by Japanese prints. It is here in Montmartre that we discover, though, why that work was, and is, so captivating: he did much more than just observe the people he saw in clubs and brothels.
According to the director of Albi’s Musee ToulouseLautrec, Daniele Devynck, this artist was more a journalist than anything else. He reported on life in Montmartre, she says, but tried to see deeper links and motivations, without contempt for his human subjects. ‘‘Lautrec, in fact, is interested in psychology and not by the artificial appearance of people,’’ Devynck says. ‘‘It is his way to want to show the reality of each personality. This is true for each thing he makes; whether it is his mother or a prostitute, it is exactly the same approach. He does not moralise.
‘‘Prostitutes were part of the entertainment in Montmartre. Yet you can tell he really respects these women.’’
The painting In Bed (1894) is set in one of Montmartre’s ‘‘houses of tolerance’’ – brothels that operated without intervention as long as their inmates did not ply their trade outside the property.
Lautrec rendered all sorts of intimate scenes from these places – women gathering for venereal disease inspections, lesbian lovers in bed together, women lounging amiably on sofas waiting for clients – and there are excellent examples of these in Devynck’s museum, which houses the world’s largest public collection of the artist’s work.
It is one of 31 institutions and private collectors sending work to the show at the National Gallery of Australia. While the Lautrec museum has the most extensive collection of the artist’s posters in the world, the NGA has been avidly collecting in the past few years and now has an excellent array of posters and lithographs, many of which were printed in small editions.
While many visitors to the Canberra exhibition might have in mind the Lautrec characters from Baz Luhrmann’s film Moulin Rouge! (2001) or Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (2011), they could be surprised to discover Lautrec was from an aristocratic family: he was born only streets away from Albi’s Musee Toulouse-Lautrec at the Hotel du Bosc in the old town. The artist’s lineage, though, was more a hindrance than a privilege: while his good breeding meant he had the benefits of education, wealth and cultural nous, that same heritage of interbreeding (his parents were first cousins) is most likely responsible for his congenital health difficulties. Those problems included his famously stunted limbs, part of the rare genetic condition known as pycnodysostosisos (nicknamed ToulouseLautrec syndrome).
Growing up as a noble near the towns of Toulouse and Lautrec, from whence the family name derives, meant little when his family tried to bequest his work to the Luxembourg Museum (later absorbed by the Louvre) after Lautrec died. The work was rejected; the Albi museum took it in 1922, and it filled the building.
When the NGA’s senior curator of international art, Jane Kinsman, visited the museum to research the NGA show, she was struck deeply by the power of Lautrec’s work when standing in front of it. Again, it is his attention to the character of his sitters that caught her. ‘‘I saw his absolute facility for both drawing and for characterisation,’’ she says. ‘‘ When you see it in the flesh, in the lines of a poster, it really astonishes.
‘‘He had such an ability to scrutinise character that, in the end, even though he was a young and emerging artist, the society ladies avoided having him commissioned to do their portraits. The few examples that he did do of such women were very uncomplimentary, which caused a bit of friction.’’
Kinsman says Lautrec was not much interested in these types of commissions anyway; his favourite models were lessfortunate Parisians. He was interested in their personalities, she writes in the catalogue for Toulouse-Lautrec: Paris & the Moulin Rouge, ‘‘whether a laundress, a ballet dancer or a circus performer’’, and this subtle exploration of their characters was a significant contribution to the evolution of 19th-century art. Likewise in the brothels where – because of his physical disabilities – he chose to go for sex, Lautrec thrived on the lack of self-consciousness of women.