Lautrec's Life, High and Low

by Ken Johnson
New York Times Art Review
March 18, 2005

WASHINGTON - "Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre," a flawed but enthralling exhibition that opens Sunday at the National Gallery of Art here, frames the famously diminutive painter in the context of fin de siècle Montmartre and the Parisian demimonde. It features more than 120 pieces by Lautrec - paintings, drawings, prints and posters - and more than 100 works by others, including striking minor pieces by Manet, van Gogh and Bonnard, and many paintings and posters by lesser-known artists.

The show argues that understanding the sociology of the place where Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) started out as a student in the early 1880's and achieved resounding success as a poster artist in the 1890's will add much that a personal biography or a traditional art-historical focus on the work cannot reveal. As T. J. Clark showed in his influential book "The Painting of Modern Life," knowing about topics like urban planning and middle-class leisure in 19th-century Paris can greatly enrich our experience of Impressionist painting.

But in this show, organized by Richard Thomson, an art history professor at the University of Edinburgh, Montmartre does not emerge as a very revelatory or even a very clear lens through which to view Lautrec. Nor does it emerge as a gripping subject in its own right. Along with its catalog, the show provides lots of historical and sociological information, as well as ticket stubs, photographs, sheet music and other sorts of memorabilia. But it leaves in place the cast of characters and settings that are at least vaguely familiar to most viewers as the background of Lautrec's cheerfully dissolute life: the singers, dancers, prostitutes, men in top hats, dance halls, cafes and brothels. The show turns paintings and prints by Toulouse-Lautrec and others into illustrations for a baggy popular history lesson.

Fortunately, Lautrec is a wonderful enough painter to survive this treatment, and the works by other artists are illuminating. Pictures by Manet, van Gogh and Bonnard show Lautrec's affinities with others who were creating Modernist idioms. And it is interesting to see how much better he was than the many lesser artists with whom he shared conventions of style, theme and subject matter. He was a draftsman and caricaturist of genius, with a powerfully acute sense of pictorial design. And his ability to imbue representations of people - especially women - with individuality, vitality and emotional poignancy is on a par with any artist since Rembrandt.

Studying this exhibition, you may well conclude that the key to Lautrec is not Montmartre but the women of Montmartre, by whom he appears endlessly fascinated and depicts with remarkable empathy. He does not turn women into stereotypical sex objects, as does, say, Renoir. But neither is he clinically detached like Degas, who was a hugely important influence on Lautrec. Nor does he exoticize women à la Gauguin, or worship them as preternaturally beautiful goddesses, as the academic Bouguereau does.

If not uniquely, at least highly unusually, Lautrec seems in his art to be interested in women as independent people, free agents and creative artists. His most famous pictures are of female theatrical performers, women like Jane Avril and Yvette Guilbert who, on the stage anyway, are in charge of their own destinies. But he is good with ordinary women, too, and though they may be frumpy, gawky and otherwise less than beautiful, he always seems to like them.

Women, for Lautrec, are somehow connected to the spirit of contemporary art itself. "At the Moulin Rouge," one of his biggest and most important paintings, shows a group of men sitting around a table with two women, while a third woman looms forward at the far right side of the canvas, her face bathed in an eerie green light. The two women at the table are also mysteriously spotlighted; the one with her back to us has glowing red hair and the one across the table has a white, masklike face. The men are all dimly lighted, hirsute and wearing top hats (the bearded and top-hatted Lautrec himself is identifiable in the murky background). It seems barely a stretch to read the men as personifications of unenlightened conformity and the women as possibly dangerous promises of creative possibility. It is clear whose side Lautrec is on.

The woman with her back turned to the viewer and her eyes hidden is a recurrent motif in Lautrec. In a painting from 1888, a red-haired woman sits alone at a cafe table, her back to the viewer and only the side of her face visible. The lone woman at the cafe table is a standard motif for many artists at this time, yet you can sense in Lautrec's picture a particularly tender attraction and curiosity. A painting from 1889 called "Rousse" ("Redhead") offers the naked back of a woman sitting on the floor. She may be a prostitute washing up, but she is viewed with an affectionate intimacy, as though by a friend or a longtime lover.

With its light palette, relative flatness and visibly busy brushwork, "Rousse" obviously owes much to both Degas and Manet, and it is instructive to compare it with a beautiful picture by Manet in the show: a small painting of a tired-looking young woman in a pink dress seated at a cafe table with a drink. Manet views his subject almost straight-on and his painting is similarly direct in its address to the viewer.

The shock in Manet, for his contemporaries, was the full-frontal nakedness of his painting as much as his sometimes scandalous images. Lautrec is an artist of indirection and inflection - of shadows and silhouettes, hints and suggestions, finely tuned shapes and gestures but few details. What made him a great graphic artist was his ability to convey so much so quickly, and so economically.

Lautrec was an aristocrat, but a bohemian, countercultural spirit animates his art. (He drank himself to death by the age of 36.) As opposed to the competitive aggression and rationalistic regimentation of modern business and industry, he evoked a world of sensual pleasure, personal intimacy, expressive spontaneity and erotic play. A Marxist like T. J. Clark might reasonably argue that the circuses, dance halls, cafes and brothels and the cult of celebrity that so inspired him were already industrialized forms of entertainment.

But Lautrec did not emphasize the dark side. In his paintings and prints, the circus is an arena of acrobatic joy and the brothel, perhaps paradoxically, a haven from the outer, male-dominated world. In the maisons closes, as the brothels were called, the pace is slow and lazy, familial; men are rarely in evidence and women find romance in each other's arms. He was not the only artist to visit brothels, but he was one of the most empathetic. (Think, by contrast, of Picasso's terrifying "Demoiselles d'Avignon.")

The women of Montmartre were for Lautrec doorways to the more freely expressive, sensuous and sympathetic part of himself - to his own inner femininity, you might say. (Excepting the great posters for the cabaret singer Aristide Bruant, none of his pictures of men are nearly as alive.) In his many pictures of women who turn away and hide their eyes, it is as though he is patiently waiting to be let into the feminine world.

In his famous 1892 print "The Englishman at the Moulin Rouge," the all-purple form of a top-hatted fellow leans toward a pair of women, crowding them into the left-side edge of the picture, as though he were trying to penetrate their secret society and not just proposition them.

The exhibition includes a curious set of small lithographs by Lautrec all based on a flat, nearly abstract image, like a cloud or a ghost. Look closely and you see it has little stick legs and an elementary head. It depicts Loïe Fuller, a dancer famed for swirling around her body the billowing skirts of her gowns, using poles held in each hand. A brief film of Fuller is on view and her act looks so ridiculous it is hard to see what could have been so captivating about her. But in Lautrec's prints she becomes the epitome of expressive immediacy - the fusion of the dancer and the dance, of form and content - that he sought and, at his best, found in his own art.