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February 2005

Too Much Toulouse

How overexposure turned Toulouse-Lautrec into a forgotten genius

In the art world, anonymity—some would say—is sometimes the price one must pay for having enjoyed great fame. This would certainly describe the fate of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and his work, which for a time was enormously influential and which even today remains extremely popular—and that is precisely the problem. His images—which typify the bohemian spirit of fin de siècle Paris—have become so widespread, his style and technique so completely assimilated by illustrators and graphic artists who followed him, that his own signature and personality have faded into oblivion. Indeed, those who pass his pictures every day would most likely not be able to tell you who created them.

In response to this, the Hypo-Kunsthalle in Munich has put together an exhibition entitled “Toulouse-Lautrec: The Complete Graphic Works, Sketches and Paintings,” in which a representative selection of Toulouse Lautrec’s oeuvre is presented. Showcasing works ranging from early Impressionist-influenced paintings, such as Le Jeune Routy à Céleyran (1882), to the lithographic prints of his final years, the exhibition features much more than just the Jane Avril posters and the Reine de Joie advertisement that we’re all so familiar with. Drawing on the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung in Munich, the collection of Otto Gerstenberg and other private collections, the exhibition attempts to acquaint—or reacquaint—the viewer with the work of the “genius of Montmartre,” as he was known among the bars and brothels, artsy cafés and cabarets that illuminated the Paris of his day.

Toulouse-Lautrec was willing to accept non-traditional com-missions, such as illustrations and promotional poster designs. It was these posters that brought him his first artistic recognition, in 1891. Throughout the rest of the 1890s Toulouse-Lautrec spent long hours making drawings of prostitutes in brothels, such as at the Rue des Moulins and Le Divan Japonais. His subjects also included famous music-hall performers of the day, some of whom he became friends with, such as Yvette Guilbert, Jane Avril and May Milton. He scorned professional models, favoring instead the prostitutes and artists who inhabited the sordid underworld of the Parisian nightlife, for it is they who are portrayed in his most popular and evocative images. In order to depict his subjects’ natural ease, he painted quickly, often in thinned oils, capturing movement and atmosphere in a minimal number of brushstrokes: an innovative approach to painting that would have merited an inclusion in Charles Baudelaire’s reflections on the role of the painter not only in depicting but in generating the concepts that help us understand the aesthetics of modern life. Although Toulouse-Lautrec knew many of his models intimately, he managed to portray them as if he had seen them for the first time, as strangers who remain somehow unreal. And it is precisely this element of strangeness in what is familiar and familiarity in strangeness that is at the center of his art.

One of Toulouse-Lautrec’s favorite—and most famous—subjects was Jane Avril, one of the star dancers at the Moulin Rouge. In a poster of her from 1893, he shows Jane on stage doing a sort of erotic cancan. In the foreground, the phallic neck of a bass frames the image of the performer, as a member of the orchestra would see her. Closer examination, however, reveals that this image is not necessarily one of jubilation. We see that Jane Avril looks tired and apathetic, brooding to herself as she kicks out her thin legs—all quite in contrast to the pleasure that the audience supposedly takes in the performance. Thus this bold graphic image also has an intimate, personal note. This is what sets many of Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters and illustrations apart from other contemporary images used for advertising purposes. These are not sketches of garishly grinning showgirls without a care in the world. These are carefully observed portraits laced with empathy. Despite the image’s seeming superficiality, despite its purpose as a glamorous promotion, the artist portrayed his subjects honestly, as real human beings with real problems. For this reason alone Toulouse-Lautrec deserves to be remembered. <<<

“Toulouse-Lautrec: The Complete Graphic Works, Sketches and Paintings” will be held at the Hypo-Kunsthalle from February 4 to May 1.

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