The National Gallery in Canberra’s big show this summer is Toulouse Lautrec: Paris and Moulin Rouge. The show assembles several hundred images, mostly prints, and a number paintings produced during Lautrec’s short life. He was only 37 years old when he died in 1901.
An aristocrat and a near dwarf with congenitally poor bones which made them easy to fracture, Lautrec’s has the singular distinction of having been the first artist to be both a commercial and a fine artist. Both aspects of his oeuvre are today seen as interchangeable, the fact that he drew a poster for British bicycle manufacturer Simpson advertising his new bicycle chain at the same time as he was exploring the intimate world of the prostitute in her brothel in a series of lithographic studies is now barely worth the noting. We had to wait another sixty years before Andy Warhol joined him in that distinction. The descent has been steeper since Andy, with Damien Hurst lending his name to a line of Levi’s jeans. But then again, to reference Auden, we live in a low, dishonest age. The good thing about the Canberra show is the inclusion of Lautrec’s paintings, an aspect of his work that is not often seen. One of the last big Lautrec shows was in London in 1988 when the Royal Academy exhibited almost the entire corpus of his graphic work at Burlington House. The accompanying catalogue to that exhibition is now the standard work on Lautrec as print and poster maker. But the RA exhibited none of his paintings. In Canberra there are plenty. And what an interesting painter he was too. His early work is unremarkable. In my view it doesn’t show evidence of precocious talent the writers of the accompanying catalogue claim. If you want precocity of talent look at the work of the young Jan Wierix of the 1550s. His etched copies of Durer’s etchings are astonishing in their fidelity to the originals; he did them when he was 14 years old. Lautrec’s early paintings show him learning his trade. In The Jockeys of 1882 he attempted one of the most difficult feats in painting: to render a horse face on. He almost gets the foreshortening right. In a nude study Jeanne of the same year, her hands defeat him and they are left as a blur. At that time he is studying at Leon Bonnat’s studio. Soon he would move to Atelier Cormon.
It was while he was a student that Lautrec encountered impressionism. He was in Paris in 1882 for the seventh exhibition which was mounted by that loosely-knit group and he was also there in 1886 for their eighth and last exhibition. The Redhead in a White Blouse of 1887, “a beautifully nuanced portrait of Carmen Gaudin”, as the catalogue notes, shows that while he’d taken the work of Seurat and Signac seriously he did not wholly adopt their style. He soon forged his own with figures strongly delineated and painted in primary colours. He also devised a technique of painting in oils that produced the most unlike oil paint of any painter using that medium. Unlike the usual glistening of oils his paintings are almost matt. The paints have been thinned and invariably this makes the surface of the picture look dry. The overall effect is of paintings that appear as if they were drawn with conte crayons.
A particular favourite of mine is La Toilette of 1891 where the woman is seen from behind preparing her hair. (A different version is shown, left.) It is painted in muted pinks, blues and grays. It has a touch of Degas to it but Degas would never have painted a picture like this. Firstly, it is unfinished, or, rather, not all areas of the support (in this case cardboard) have been prepared and painted over. Indeed, this is a hallmark of Lautrec the painter. He does not prepare the surface upon which he paints and neither does he always cover the support with paint. Judging from the paintings on display in Canberra it is a rare painting whose entire surface is painted. Patches of raw canvas and unpainted board excited critics of the mid-20th century, especially American ones like Clement Greenberg, who saw this as subversive of painting as representation and, as such, one of the things that, from a formal perspective, made Lautrec avant-garde and placed him in the front row of artists propelling art towards modernism. That may well be so, but from a purely aesthetic point of view Lautrec uses the texture and colour of cardboard as artists before (and since) use underpainting as a way of defining shadows and surfaces. That said, some of the paintings here have a distinctly unfinished look to them such as Woman Curling Her Hair of 1891 and Seated Woman of 1893. They look as though the artist put them aside and didn’t have time to get back to them.
Perhaps this was because at the beginning of the 1890s he discovered printmaking, and more specifically, lithography and Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints. He also took on his first commercial projects and in 1891 he produced the 191 x 117 cm Moulin Rouge: La Goulue. His career never looked back. The boldness of his design and the scale of the print captivated the Parisian imagination. Other cabarets and commercial enterprises sort him out. By the mid-1890s there were about 270 cafe-cabarets and cafe-concerts in Paris. Of the 351 lithographs he produced from 1891 until 1901 only 28 were big commercial posters. Many of them are on exhibit in Canberra, as indeed are the series of the daily life of prostitutes known as Elles (Them). No late 19th century version of Pretty Woman, no Julia Roberts here, just ordinary women at their toilette, resting, or comforting each other as seen through the steely gaze of Lautrec. Apparently a lot of prostitutes in Paris at Lautrec’s time were lesbians. According to Jaklyn Babbington the women depicted in The Two Friends 1894 “are a lesbian couple”.
“One places her right across the other in a caring, cradling action that draws their bodies closer together. The Two Friends is not lesbianism as spectacle for male gaze, nor is it celebrity lesbianism concealed, but a portrayal of two unknown women sharing a moment of private tenderness and meaningful sincerity. With his sensitive treatment of this theme Lautrec reveals a glimpse of real intimacy in an otherwise constructed world of sexual extravagance and simulated fantasy.” (p.135)
Earlier she claims that it represents two prostitutes “during a brief interval between clients”. How does Babbington know that? There is certainly no evidence in the picture. Equally Lautrec could have observed a woman comforting another who had just been abused by a client. There may not be any lesbian intent at all. How can Babbington and her editor be so certain? Lautrec looks for the commonplace, the normality of the lives of these women. Indeed, virtually all of his work avoids “portraying the constructed world of sexual extravagance and simulated fantasy”. He paints the in between times when the workers are resting or getting ready for their day.
I’m prepared to take on trust Babbington’s claim that many, perhaps most, of the leading women of the Paris stage and cabaret were bisexual or homosexual. Lautrec drew many of them for his prints. They were the stars of their time. Indeed, in the 1950s many of the leading men Universal Studios, like Rock Hudson, Montgomery Cliff, Anthony Perkins, et al, were homosexual. But if someone, during the 1950s, produced a series of images of these men would we really assume there was an intentional gay subtext, or would we conclude that the images just represented the most popular actors of the day, their sexuality being incidental to their stardom?