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Lautrec’s Bitter Theater

The Letters of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

edited by Herbert D. Schimmel, Introduction by Gale B. Murray
Oxford University Press, 444 pp., $59.00

Toulouse-Lautrec 1991–January 19, 1992 Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Paris, February 21–June 1, 1992

an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, London, October 10,

Toulouse-Lautrec Yale University Press

catalog of the exhibition by Richard Thomson, by Claire Frèches-Thory, by Anne Roquebert, by Danièle Devynck
South Bank Centre/ Reunion des musées nationaux, distributed by, 557 pp., $65.00

Toulouse-Lautrec: The Formative Years, 1878–1891

by Gale B. Murray
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 289 pp., $120.00

Nightlife of Paris: The Art of Toulouse Lautrec

by Patrick O’Connor
Universe Books, 79 pp., $25.95

1.

When Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec died at the age of thirty-six in 1901 after a working life of less than twenty years, he left 737 paintings, 5,084 drawings, more than 300 prints, and 275 watercolors. Clearly the image that has come down to us of the highspirited genius who drank himself to death with the riffraff of bohemian Montmartre, and worked only fitfully, is inadequate.

It seems bound to change this year. A big survey exhibition organized by Richard Thomson continues to attract more than 20,000 visitors per week to London’s Hayward Gallery until January 19, when it will travel to the Grand Palais in Paris. Gale Murray’s meticulously researched study of the chronology of Lautrec’s early paintings has been published in time for the opening of the show, as has an edition of the complete letters, edited by Herbert D. Schimmel.1 Patrick O’Connor’s entertaining picture book on Lautrec and the night life of Paris rather naughtily crops details from the paintings to evoke an evening on the town, from the afternoon café concert to the late-night visit to the brothels.

Murray and Thomson ask how, when, and for what purpose Lautrec’s art was made. They show that far from being an outsider, he had a great success with the advertising and entertainment industries in Paris. Though admittedly his letters tell only part of the story, they are written not by a tortured romantic but by an ambitious, hard-working professional sustained by an affectionate family and by dozens of friendships, in the artistic and theatrical worlds.

Lautrec’s place in the history of art also needs rethinking. If he is regarded, as he often has been, simply as Degas’s most stylish follower, his importance for twentieth-century art is a little hard to gauge. But if he is seen as an artist consciously creating a fusion between the high and low arts of oil painting and popular illustration, who bridged the worlds of the art gallery and commercial advertising, then he anticipated, and with far more talent, the innovations of Andy Warhol and other pop artists.

None of the studies under review is particularly concerned with Lautrec’s difficult life, but we have to start with that life if we are to understand the career, and anyway, his story is full of psychological interest. Lautrec was born in 1864, the only surviving son of the union of two first cousins, Count Alphonse and Countess Marie Adèle de Toulouse-Lautrec Monfa. He grew up on the family estates near Albi but went to school in Paris, where he was treated to Punch and Judy shows, marionette theaters, and the circus.

Long before two slight accidents left his legs permanently stunted at the age of fourteen, his mother and father realized something was physically wrong with him. Medical experts now think that Lautrec suffered from a very rare bone disorder, pycnodysostosis, the result of his parents’ consanguinity. Though his body’s trunk was normal, the disease prevented the growth of his legs and left him with unusually small hands and feet, an overlarge cranium, receding chin, and slightly fleshy nose and lips. Full grown, he stood at 4 feet, 11inches high.

By conventional standards, then, Lautrec was an exceedingly ugly man, a fact which the caricaturist in him saw only too well. “Look at that shape absolutely totally lacking in elegance, that big behind, that potato nose….” Such self-deprecating jokes masked an undercurrent of permanent sadness:

When it starts to get dark I wait to find out whether Jeanne d’Armagnac [his cousin] will come near my bed. Sometimes she comes, and I listen to her speak, not daring to look at her, she is so tall and beautiful and I am neither tall nor beautiful.

In art he found relief from his physical and mental afflictions. After breaking his left leg in May 1878, he writes that he is drawing and painting so much that “my hand gets tired of it.”

Lautrec started his artistic career at the age of eighteen in the traditional way, by preparing for the entrance examination to the Ecole des Beaux Arts in the atelier of a highly respectable academic artist. After a brief spell with the portrait painter Léon Bonnat in the spring and summer of 1882, he spent nearly five years with Fernand Cormon, years during which, in his mother’s words, he worked “like a dog.” Along the way he lost interest in the Ecole des Beaux Arts and everything it stood for.

But not at first. Lautrec’s early letters give no indication that he was either aware of the Impressionists or went to their exhibitions. Nor did he show the slightest interest in avantgarde concerns such as the theoretical application of line and color or the painting of light. Instead, he painted in the wishy-washy juste milieu style of Jules Bastien-Lepage, constructing his paintings by the traditional method of transferring charcoal preparatory drawings to canvas by means of tracings.

According to Gale Murray, Lautrec’s gradual emergence as an avantgarde artist in the years 1885–1886 coincided with the “wind of revolt” from Durand-Ruel’s gallery, where the Impressionists exhibited. But elsewhere she makes it clear that the “wind of revolt” came from quite a different direction, one much closer to Cormon’s atelier in the working-class district of Montmarte. Lautrec was actually “discovered” (we can use the tired expression because he himself writes about a hoped-for “lucky break”) not by an art critic or gallery owner but by an entertainer. This was the singer Aristide Bruant, who in 1885 took over the premises of a dive called Le Chat Noir on the Boulevard Rochechouart in Montmartre, rechristening it Le Mirliton.

The songs that made Bruant famous were dramatic monologues rasped out in working-class Parisian slang to a mixed audience of local types, artists, writers, and journalists. “Bourgeois? We eat ‘em alive at the Mirli!” In his novel Paris, Zola described Bruant (“Legras”) singing at the Mirliton:

Gas jets without globes flamed, scalding the open air, furiously heating the thick, stagnant vapour, made by breath and the smoke from pipes. One could see through that blur flushed, sweaty faces, while the acrid odour of all those crammed-in people increased the drunkenness, the cries of which the audience whipped up each new season…

Legras had just appeared on the platform, and his repertoire, his flowers of the street, completed the explanation of his success, songs in which the excrement and the suffering of the lower depths, all of the abominable plague of the social hell, hurled and spit their evil in foul words of blood and fire.

As Zola goes on to describe in detail, Bruant’s songs were filthy—much more explicit than anything that would be widely acceptable today. They chronicle the lives and messy ends of pimps, prostitutes, and thieves in the Saint-Lazare prison or under the guillotine at La Roquette. A forerunner of Kurt Weill and Jacques Brel, he lived until 1925. His recordings are still available.

Murray convincingly demonstrates that there exists a close correspondence between many of Lautrec’s paintings and lithographs from the second half of the 1880s and Bruant’s realistic evocation of the miseries of proletarian life. The paintings Bruant bought for his own collection and then hung at Le Mirliton. The lithographs he used as illustrations in his house publication, also called Le Mirliton.

A Montrouge—Rosa la Rouge (1886, Barnes Foundation) illustrates Bruant’s tale of a red-haired street-walker who lures her victims into a dark doorway, then gives a whistle to her pimp, who steps out of the darkness to slit the client’s throat.

When she gets a “John” in a corner,
Me, I’m right there…not far at all…
Andthe next day the cop finds “red” all right,
At Montrouge.

Lautrec’s picture shows a depraved creature all the more frightening because her straggly orange hair hangs in front of her face as she looks over her shoulder to make sure her pimp is in position. We can point to visual precedents for such socially realistic themes in the work of other artists in Lautrec’s circle such as Theophile Alexandre Steinlen and Jean-François Raffaëlli, but Lautrec alone captures the low, angry growl of Bruant’s delivery.

What is more, Lautrec adapted his style of illustration to each song. In A Montrouge the paint is applied as hurriedly as the tale it is used to depict, while the delicately drawn lithograph illustrating the song “A Saint-Lazare” perfectly captures the wistful tone of the whore’s lament for her pimp.

Lautrec was not the first artist habitually to use the cheap industrial material of cardboard as a support, but together with his medium of pigment thinned with turpentine (“peinture à l’essence“) his method of painting has to be understood as a conscious alternative to the more expensive and more middle-class medium of oil on canvas. It was therefore ideally suited to his low-life subject matter.

A comparison between Lautrec’s Au Bal du Moulin de la Galette (Art Institute of Chicago) of 1889 with Renoir’s famous painting of the same subject thirteen years earlier underscores Lautrec’s commitment at this stage in his career to depicting the psychological reality of contemporary urban life. Both pictures show the famous Montmartre dance hall, and Lautrec obviously had the composition of the Renoir in mind when constructing his picture, but there the similarities end.

Renoir sets his scene on a summer’s afternoon in the garden. Radiant young men and women dance, talk, drink, and flirt together in a utopian vision of a working-class community. Lautrec, by contrast, shows the inside of the Moulin de la Galette in winter, late at night, when only the seediest types shuffle around the dance floor. No eyes meet. Women dance with women while predatory men scout their prey and a uniformed soldier from the Garde Municipale keeps some of the rougher trade in order.

This cold and alienated world is painted in sickly colors and thin, streaky paint, like rain on an unwashed window. We are a long way from the pop of champagne corks or the rustling petticoats of cancan dancers.

2.

In 1887 Lautrec published his lithograph “Sur le Pavé: le trottin” on the cover of Bruant’s Le Mirliton. Outside a pissoir a lecherous old man accosts a shopgirl whom he has been following, and the caption reads:

How old are you, little one?”

Fifteen, Sir…”

Hmm! already a little oldish looking….”

The enticement of very young working-class girls into prostitution by middle-class men is a theme that places Lautrec firmly among the social realists. And yet, only six years later, in 1893, in a lithograph for another cover of Le Mirliton entitled “Le petit trottin,” something has changed. The illustration shows the same situation—lecher meets shopgirl—but this time the encounter takes place on equal terms, carefree and lighthearted, of no more consequence than a wink and a giggle. What happened in between?

What happened is that as Lautrec’s fame grew, so Montmartre began to be marketed as a tourist attraction for the middle classes. When the American art student W.C. Morrow visited the Moulin de la Galette around this time he reported that outsiders very rarely strayed into the quarter—indeed Morrow departed more quickly than he had intended when he was attacked by a gang of local thugs who chased him through the narrow streets.2

As we know from John Richardson’s recent life of Picasso, Montmartre even in the early years of this century could be a dangerous place to spend the evening. Razor-wielding apaches still controlled entire streets, and many of the inhabitants carried revolvers. If prostitution was part of the scene, so was murder. In a letter of 1884, Lautrec speaks of Montmartre as “a quarter that continues to have its cut-throat character” and his mother describes Montmartre simply as “a bad neighborhood.”

Of course, whether or not Montmartre was safe hardly mattered to a bohemian artist, but it mattered very much indeed to health-conscious tourists. When the entrepreneurs Charles Zidler and Joseph Oller opened the Moulin Rouge in 1889, they needed to promote Montmartre as a place that was risqué, and maybe even risky—but not scary, and certainly not depraved. Posters by Chéret would perhaps have donethe trick, but even then may have seemed a little old-fashioned. Casting about for an artist who would collude in the exploitation of the quarter, they commissioned Lautrec to sell the public a new image of Montmartre.

His first masterpiece, the poster “Moulin Rouge—La Goulue” shows the famous dancer Louise Weber, nicknamed La Goulue, the glutton, surrounded by a silhouetted circle of tarts and toffs. At the center of the stage, she kicks up her heels in her notorious rendition of the quadrille naturaliste (a wilder version of the can-can), a vision in polka dots, a top knot, and fancy underwear.

Lautrec’s Montmartre is highspirited but not vicious. What was sleazy and frightening two years earlier at the Moulin de la Galette is made to look gay and vertiginous and enticing at the Moulin Rouge. Without in any way making the dance hall appear tame, Lautrec plays down the neighborhood’s reputation for violence, concentrating instead on the naughty but harmless quadrille to draw people in.

And it worked. As soon as other entertainers and café owners saw the magnificently simple poster they demanded the kind of publicity Lautrec had to offer. One by one, and for a price, he was willing to immortalize the leading popular entertainers of the day. Soon after the appearance of the Moulin Rouge poster Lautrec was summoned to the dressing room of the famous singer Yvette Guilbert. Almost beside himself with excitement, he reported to his mother that “she asked me to make a poster for her. This is the greatest success I could have dreamed of—for she has already been depicted by the most famous people and it’s a question of doing something very good.”

Lautrec did not yet realize that if anything it was Guilbert who needed him, not the other way around. Even Bruant, who had given Lautrec his start, now needed his old friend if he was to find a wider fame. By 1893 Bruant was marketing his appearance and reputation for outrage to a middle-class audience downtown. Lautrec’s famous red and black poster of Bruant in cape and scarf looks a little like an anarchist’s flag at the barricades. In fact it advertises the singer’s act not at a working-class café on the hill of Montmartre, but at Les Ambassadeurs, a big cabaret on the well-lit Champs-Elysées.

It would be tempting to see Lautrec’s relationship with these performers as that of public relations manager to client, but the truth is not quite so straightforward. Richard Thomson emphasizes the artist’s ambiguous attitude toward these egotistical and often insecure stars, quoting contemporary reactions to his images of Bruant and Guilbert, the first a monster of conceit and arrogance, the other a monster in other ways as well.

When critics have discussed the formal qualities of Lautrec’s posters they usually find the influence of Japanese prints in his flattening of forms, denial of depth, and lack of shading. No doubt Japanese principles of design were important for Lautrec, but his emphasis on the visually shallow and superficial may also serve as a metaphor for the moral character of the performers they depict.

The theater historian Patrick O’Connor throws fresh light in his brief text on Lautrec’s involvement with the world of the café concert and the dance hall, not least by reproducing alongside the works of art one of the principal marketing innovations of the period, publicity photographs of the stars. These are particularly useful since they enable us to judge how much Lautrec distorted the appearances of the performers he was hired to promote.

Lautrec’s comically savage lithographs of Yvette Guilbert show a desperate, red-nosed has-been reveling in her tenth curtain call, swooping down to the footlights and hanging on to the stage curtain with her long, black-gloved hands, hungry for another round of applause. From these lithographs, one would conclude that Guilbert drank heavily and that her career was nearly over. In fact photographs from this period show a poised and fairly pretty twenty-seven-year-old woman, whose greatest popularity still lay ahead.

Guilbert and Bruant were established actors. Lautrec’s poster “Jane Avril Jardin de Paris” of 1893 launched the career of an unknown dancer. Seeing a wall at the Hayward Gallery hung with paintings and posters of Jane Avril, one notices how Lautrec both promotes her act, as she had paid him to do, and unmasks the sad and lonely human being behind the image of the star. She is a tired old woman entering the stage door at the Moulin Rougein the picture now in the Courtauld Institute Galleries in London, or a perverse black beetle secretly smiling to herself on a bar stool in the famous poster “Divan Japonais.”

A description of Jane Avril dancing by her contemporary, the poet Paul Leclercq, makes her sound wonderful:

In the midst of the crowd, there was a stir, and a line of people started to form: Jane Avril was dancing, twirling, gracefully, lightly, a little madly; pale, skinny, thoroughbred, she twirled and reversed, weightless, fed on flowers; Lautrec was shouting his admiration.

But when Lautrec depicts her he makes her look utterly joyless, her face proclaiming that she is dancing for us, for the money, and not for pleasure.

3.

Pleasure, in fact, is the one thing that seems to have been in singularly short supply in Lautrec’s Montmartre. In the works that show him to be a very great artist he ostensibly colludes with the fiction of Gay Paree while at the same time revealing the cold, mirthless reality at its heart. Somewhat in the way Andy Warhol surrounded himself with deviants, cross-dressers, publicity-mad socialites, and social climbers, Lautrec found in Montmartre a small army of exhibitionists and freaks, all exposing themselves to his merciless gaze. And far from resenting his intrusion into their lives, each and every one would be devastated if he were to turn away.

For me the most interesting lithographs are those of performers about whom we know almost nothing, particularly a fat Irish comedienne named May Belfort, whose act consisted of lisping dirty nursery rhymes while dressed in a long nightie and Kate Greenaway bonnet. We do not know precisely what attracted Lautrec to her when so many other performers failed to do so, but under her coarse features we sometimes catch a glimpse of something like girlish beauty, humorous self-mockery—even grace and moral courage.

Then there are the tiny social dramas that Lautrec seems to catch as they occur. The fascination of the colored lithograph of 1897 “Idylle Princière” is not so much in its form or technique as in what is happening, or about to happen, even as we watch. The American-born Princess de Caraman-Chimay and her lover, a pock-marked gypsy named Rigo, are seen together in the box at the theater. Lautrec cruelly emphasizes the arsenic-induced pallor of the princess’s skin, her bleached blond hair, her perfectly vacant expression. For all her sophistication, she is presented as brainless and vulnerable as a canary bird. Crouching below her, hair and mustache slick with brilliantine, the cat is about to pounce.

Lautrec found the spectacle of life in Montmartre diverting and often amusing, but he is always aware of the loneliness and boredom at its heart. Though he presumably painted his pictures of lesbians to titillate the sophisticated tastes of his male cronies, these scenes are anything but enthusiastic celebrations of Sapphic love; they lack the one ingredient essential for portraying erotic or emotional experience as fulfilling: trust. By and large they are scenes of seduction. One woman tentatively makes a physical approach to another, who in turn eyes the aggressor warily, neither pushing her away nor wholeheartedly responding, merely waiting to see what will happen next. Sometimes one is reminded of two lionesses idly pawing each other in play. Like most of Lautrec’s brothel scenes, the pictures of lesbians are even more about stifling boredom than they are about sex.

We do not know the setting in which Lautrec intended his lesbian subjects to be seen. This matters because where his pictures were to be hung is one of the keys to understanding his art. Long before his first lithographic poster grabbed the attention of undiscriminating passers-by on the Rue de Clichy and Boulevard Montmartre, his paintings were seen on the walls of crowded, smoke-filled public places. As we have seen, Bruant displayed several from his own collection at Le Mirliton, and the owners of the Moulin Rouge hung two of his most celebrated paintings, Au Cirque Fernando: Ecuyère and, over the bar, Dressage des Nouvelles, par Valentin le Désossé (Moulin-Rouge).

Lautrec presumably knew, or guessed, where these pictures would end up even as he was working on them, and he therefore painted them in a way that allows the eye to take in each subject in one swift glance. Their bold, simple compositions are created by strong lines and broad areas of relatively flat color, applied in an almost slapdash way. In other words, he treated these oil paintings as though theywere posters, thereby connecting the worlds of the art gallery and commercial advertising. This breaking down of the distinction between high and low art worked in reverse when, in turn, he insisted that his posters be treated as fine art, not commercial design. When invited to show the poster “Moulin Rouge—La Goulue” at the Salon des Indépendents in March 1892, he was asked to remove the words “Moulin Rouge” which are repeated three times in red, like a neon sign flashing on and off. In a letter to Paul Signac he refused:

Following a committee meeting I have been invited to frame my poster and cover the words Moulin Rouge which it appears look like an advertisement…. I replied to the President that I would frame it but that I would not remove the words, which I consider part of the work of which I am the only judge.3

The enigma of the lesbian and brothel paintings is that they fall outside even the blurred categories of either gallery art or public art. In some ways they revert to his earliest sketches of the passive workers on his father’s estates, whom he paid to sit for him in the early 1880s.

It is not meant as a criticism either of Murray’s fine book or Thomson’s stimulating exhibition catalog that their approach raises a number of questions that go beyond the scope of either. Thomson and his coauthors Claire Frèches-Thory and Anne Roquebert attempt to see the paintings afresh by placing them against the background of the advertising and entertainment industries. But however convincing this view of Lautrec may be, there are of course many other possible approaches to his art. I have mentioned Warhol in connection with Lautrec, but he could equally well be compared to, say, Egon Schiele, and his art could be discussed for its expressionist or Freudian content. Such an approach would pay close attention to Lautrec’s early portraits of his mother, in which she is invariably shown with her eyes downcast, as though she were avoiding eye contact with her son. It might, moreover, see the late oil paintings based on the opera Messaline, executed after Lautrec’s mental and physical breakdown precipitated by his mother’s abrupt departure from Paris in January 1899, as among his most psychologically significant works, rather than the coda to his career which they now appear to be.

Certainly one could pay much closer attention than Thomson does to Lautrec’s known interest in Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, a book he presumably knew, or knew about, through his friendships in the medical circles frequented by his cousin and close friend Gabriel Tapié de Céleyran. Lautrec’s overt and cryptic references to masturbation, sadism, and sexual fetishism can be traced in works as different as the Chicago Ecuyère or the lithographs of Yvette Guilbert’s long black gloves. To say this only suggests how much more there is to be learned about an artist who in the past has often been underestimated and whom we are only now beginning to understand.

  1. 1

    This volume contains 608 letters, 300 of which have never been published before. The letters range from April 28, 1871, when Lautrec was six years old, to July 23, 1901, seven weeks before his death.

  2. 2

    W.C. Morrow, Bohemian Paris of Today (J.P. Lippincott, 1900), pp. 246–247.

  3. 3

    Quoted by Thomson but not included in the complete correspondence, Thomson, p. 39.

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