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 have come from poverty to riches have grasping, lacerating noses.
When we come upon a lovely nude looking out her window, her nose is without distinguishing character, and we may take it for granted that she is upon the brink of life and that her sins have not yet found her out and defined her. We have by then all but abandoned hope of hearing a hymn to woman from any sensibility so abraded by its wounds.
But suddenly we stand before the Elles portfolio and its studies of the inmates of a Paris brothel on their free time, and we are at last at a celebration of woman, and woman not beautiful or coarsened by beauty but woman as monumental as a goddess. An older woman, by her dress the madam, carries her coffee on a tray, and hers is the only face in all these rooms that is flawlessly an aristocratic one. A prostitute lies modestly sheeted on the bed behind her, innocent as a kitten among the cats on the walls around. Every now and then, Lautrec allows a few traces of the surviving kitten to peep out from those of his cats he does not yet judge to be altogether horrid; but this girl alone is granted the blessing of a purity intact and inviolable.
The great artist’s subject, in ways we can sense but are helpless to describe, is finally a religious subject. When he put his temple in a bordello, did Lautrec mean to mock the disreputability of the reputable? Or had he found woman there at last, not in her commercial embraces but in the long sight of her doing her hair or pouring her bath water or washing her neck? Had he come here of all places to the domestic hearth? We leave him very much hoping so. He had earned it.
January 16, 1986