Short Subject

The origins of Toulouse-Lautrec's cipher--the conjoined initials of his name, H, T and L, arranged in a circle--are considerably clearer. He was obviously inspired by Japanese marks, and the cipher is also related to the contemporary graphic design of English adherents to the arts and crafts movement, whose designs were pointedly Japanesque. Just beyond Toulouse-Lautrec's photo and cipher is a portal accented by a wrought-iron arch meant to suggest turn-of-the-century Paris, one of many emphatic decorative accents in the show. The robust and theatrical exhibition design was conceived by museum staffer Jeremy Hillhouse and is very appropriate for an artist whose specialty was the Parisian nightclub poster.

The first leg of the show, subtitled "A Life in Art" and filling two galleries painted a sickly chartreuse, lays out Toulouse-Lautrec's biography in a chronological survey of his art career. He was born in 1864 in Albi, in the south of France, to a wealthy and aristocratic family. As a result of their wealth, Toulouse-Lautrec was the first serious artist to be documented in studio photographs throughout his life, and reproductions of these photos are sprinkled throughout the exhibit. The display of Toulouse-Lautrec's own work starts with drawings done before he began his art training in 1882 in Paris, as a student of Fernand Cormon, who was also Van Gogh's teacher; it ends with some of the last pieces done before his death in 1901, at age 36, from alcoholism and syphilis.

Another nice feature in the design of "A Life in Art" is the use of dates prominently displayed over the pieces. This encourages viewers to see the pieces in order and thus follow Toulouse-Lautrec's stylistic progress during his very brief career. The oldest professional work here is the 1887 oil-on-wood portrait "Albert (Rene) Grenier." This straightforward picture, with just a whisper of impressionism, is typical of French painting in the late nineteenth century. The severe young man, Grenier, is wearing a black vest and a light-blue tie; his goatee and mustache have been carefully waxed and combed. He's a proper young man in a proper portrait, the kind of acceptable approach that Toulouse-Lautrec would quickly abandon. "Woman in the Garden of Monsieur Forest," an oil on canvas that is undated but was probably done between 1889 and 1891, already shows signs of change: This painting is more clearly post-impressionist in style, with unnatural color combinations and expressive and gestural brushwork.

In conversation, Frey reveals another unconventional aspect of this painting: The subject is a prostitute, a radical choice for Toulouse-Lautrec to have made at the time. Frey points out the coarseness of the woman's features and the fact that she is not wearing a hat--only two of the many elements that indicate she's the sort of person Toulouse-Lautrec's contemporaries would not consider suitable as an artistic subject.

Also in this section is the artist's debut commercial commission, "Moulin Rouge: La Goulue," a poster in color lithography from 1891. This is one of several posters seen in duplicate in the show; Frey says she wanted to have viewers see the same work in different contexts. By 1893, Toulouse-Lautrec was fully into the mature style that would place him among the founders of the Modern movement. In the magnificent and iconic "Aristide Bruant, Dans Son Cabaret," a color lithograph poster advertising a popular entertainer's revue, Toulouse-Lautrec uses bold, simple forms, principally in black accented with red. Bruant's image is shown partly from the rear and from below, two attributes seen in all the classic Toulouse-Lautrecs that reflect his height as well as his backstage presence.

"A Life in Art" finishes with several pieces done during Toulouse-Lautrec's rapid decline in 1899, when he was a patient in the Neuilly psychiatric clinic of Dr. Semalaigne. "Lautrec was diagnosed with memory loss at the clinic," says Frey. "To prove the doctors wrong, he did a drawing from memory." The drawing in question, "At the Circus: The Spanish Walk," is done in black and colored chalks and shows a horse and rider, again seen from the rear and below. The drawing proved that Toulouse-Lautrec's memory was fine, but it also demonstrated that his tenure as a cutting-edge artist was coming to an end.

After this big-picture look at Toulouse-Lautrec, the exhibit leads into a series of sections devoted to different ways of understanding his art. The first, a garishly decorated room painted pale coral, with a blue damask fabric applied below the white-painted chair rail, is titled "Lautrec's Models." Here Frey addresses the fact that Toulouse-Lautrec used the same people as subjects over and over. Among the featured models are his cousin Gabriel, who looked just like Toulouse-Lautrec except that he was six feet tall, and legendary entertainers such as Loe Fuller and Sarah Bernhardt.

Next up is "Lautrec's Posters," which fills two large galleries that have been painted a pale blue and accented with a black wrought-iron fence. Many of the artist's most famous posters are displayed here, as well as some less well-known examples. For example, "May Milton" and "May Belfort," color lithographs done in 1895, hang side by side; they were commissioned by lesbian lovers who performed in nightclub acts. Toulouse-Lautrec was interested in the lesbian demimonde that was apparently out in the open at that time in Paris--these were the gay '90s, after all. But another subject, the prostitutes Toulouse-Lautrec so frequently depicts, posed a problem for Frey, who needed to put together a family-friendly display. "The show is not for children," she notes, "but we wanted to allow parents the choice of bringing their children, so we set the prostitutes off to the side in their own space that is clearly labeled."

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