‘I Am a Pencil’

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (November 7,1985 - January 26, 1986)

There would seem to be few occasions with less promise of revelation than the Museum of Modern Art’s current show of the graphic work of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. His posters are all about us and seem always to have been; he has acquired the superficiality of universal exposure and, more to our misfortune than his, he is one of those artists who became a banality before we had or took the time to give them the proper attention.

Yet the Modern’s Lautrec display has many unexpected revelations and, as usually happens with revelations, these particular ones mystify more than they enlighten. The first surprise of confronting him in so much bulk is the discovery of the infinities that can be contained in work of distinctly limited scope. Lautrec’s compass is indeed narrower than almost any other first-class artist’s except Modigliani; we might as well be asked to judge Veronese on no evidence except his dwarfs. But those, Lautrec suggests, could well be quite enough.

We have a habit of confusing an artist’s development with his novel, and Lautrec’s physical malformation is often advanced as an explanation of the subjects he chose and the terms he chose for treating them. It would be ridiculous, of course, to suggest that all these celebrations of healthy, active bodies and these laments for the sick and damaged souls within them do not speak for a man whose own poor stumps of legs were always vivid in the forefront of his mind. All the same, what was given Lautrec may account for him rather better than what was taken away.

“I am,” he said once, “a pencil.” And that is most of what he wonderfully was; even when he painted, the pencil shows inescapably through the oil. To be a pencil meant to preserve your first impression as the only one worthwhile. The initial sketch for Mademoiselle Eglantine’s Company does not differ by so much as the curve of an arm from the final proof of the lithograph. A hand this natural was bound to detest everything artificial, and Lautrec’s sketches of the Comédie Française on stage fall upon us like a blow with the fierceness of his arraignment of a style that, having left off feeling the emotion, is reduced to counterfeiting it.

His bodily disabilities may be in point after all; in time these images convey a powerful suggestion of a scorn larger than any envy of those blessed with bodies they are unworthy to have. If that rage was any part of what moved him, Lautrec had reserved for himself very little room for its expression. In due course, we begin to locate his wrath in the few centimeters that delimit his noses.

The noses of Toulouse-Lautrec constitute in their varieties of the dreadful a catalog of all seven deadly sins except sloth—Bernhardt’s for pride, Yvette Guilbert’s for covetousness, Ida Heath’s for gluttony, and so on. The women who have been comfortable throughout their lives have rejecting nostrils, and those who…

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