A look into Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

by Jeff Hammond

Special To The Japan Times

It is hard to think of fin de siecle Paris without recalling the dancing girls and dandies of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s colorful prints. It is equally difficult to imagine work by the artist not centered on the city’s hedonistic and decadent nightlife.

While focusing on this core area of Toulouse-Lautrec’s art, the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum’s latest exhibition also sheds light on some other facets of the artist’s short career, such as his skilled oil paintings, which were often overshadowed by his poster and lithograph work.

Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) was born to an aristocratic family in Albi, southern France, a region he captures in two Impressionist-influenced oils he painted during his mid-to-late teens. Considered along with other oil works displayed later in the exhibition, they reveal that he already had a few idiosyncrasies of his own, such as scraping vertical lines through the paint to suggest trees or leaving some areas unpainted to reveal the canvas beneath. He also applied paint in brushstrokes that resemble lines rather than dabs, as though he were drawing with oils — in a way prefiguring his later work in lithography, which relies on strong lines.

Also included are various sketches he completed around the same time — some nude studies and a few portraits of relatives, including his uncle, Comte Charles de Toulouse-Lautrec, reading a book.

The exhibition then quickly moves on to the kind of works for which the artist is most famous for — pictures of Parisian cabarets, brothels and other dubious haunts. In 1891, he was commissioned to make a poster for the entrance of the famed Moulin Rouge, which had opened just two years earlier. He delivered a huge image that shows the patrons in silhouette watching the cabaret’s dancing sensation, Louise Weber, known as the Goulue, flashing her stockings from beneath her cancan skirts.

Two versions of the color lithograph “L’ Anglais au Moulin Rouge” (1892) show an English customer at the cabaret chatting up two women in outlandish hats, while a series of black-and-white lithographs document performances at a concert, including depictions of the audience. The deep blacks and brilliant whites of many of these cartoon-like concert scenes capture the dramatic effect of strong stage lighting.

Toulouse-Lautrec took a break from the Parisian demimonde for an extended stay in England in the 1890s, where he was kept busy designing posters for several companies. Included here is one of male cyclists for the Paris shop of the British bicycle company Simpson, and another featuring the golden locks of a young lady for a poster advertising confetti.

Along with Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Monet and a number of other artists of the time, Toulouse-Lautrec was greatly influenced by Japanese art; he even had a photo taken of himself dressed in Japanese clothing. The exhibition includes a selection of ukiyo-e (woodblock) prints by Kitagawa Utamaro, whose work provided Toulouse-Lautrec with inspiration. Though the Utamaro works are on loan from Kawasaki Isago no Sato Museum and not Toulouse-Lautrec’s own considerable collection, they provide a reference with which to compare.

The distorted spatial relations, vivid colors and strong, flat shapes of many of Toulouse-Lautrec’s compositions show similarities to Japanese woodblock prints. Two posters of the chanson singer Aristide Bruant dressed in a cape both use broad swaths of muted color to depict his strength and size, with a scarf wrapped around his neck providing a shock of color.

For a poster advertising the novel “Reine de Joie” (“Queen of Joy”) by the Polish author Victor Joze, he compacts space and flattens shape into sparse one-dimensional blocks. The poster, from 1892, illustrates a moment in the novel when a rich, fat banker surprises his lover-prostitute with the bill of sale for a 1 million-franc town house he had promised her, and she leaps up to kiss him. Toulouse-Lautrec draws on prevalent Jewish stereotypes for his depiction of the banker, who is supposedly a reference to Baron de Rothschild (1845-1934), and whose wrath led to an attempt to suppress publication of both book and poster. However, the image was generally received at the time as either proof of the ethical superiority of Toulouse-Lautrec, and the viewer, over the debased banker — or as testimony to the artist’s own moral corruption.

Of all the dancers of his acquaintance, Toulouse-Lautrec was particularly drawn to Jane Avril, drawing her multiple times. In an 1899 picture of his muse included here, her long figure, depicted in dramatic black, is accentuated by the sinewy shape of a snake circling her body. The poster was made shortly before the artist was institutionalized — a casualty of drink, depression and possibly syphilis. He passed away two years later, before reaching the age of 40.

“Toulouse-Lautrec, Albi-Paris: Maurice Joyant, l’heritage de l’artiste” at Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum, Tokyo, runs till Dec. 25; admission ¥1,300; open 10 a.m.-8 p.m. (Tue., Sat. and Sun. till 6 p.m.), closed Mon. For more information, visit www.mimt.jp/lautrec2011/en.