Currier and Toulouse Lautrec a Great match

Currier Museum of Art
Manchester, NH
Through January 7, 2018

Aristide Bruant
Art and the bourgeois life don't get along very well. There's something about comfort, contentment, and respectability that gets in the way of creative muses. If you think about it, some of the greatest art has been made by tortured souls: Courbet, Van Gogh, Schiele, Claudel, Kahlo, Warhol…. With the possible exception of Van Gogh, few plumbed the depths as deeply as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901). A new show at the (underappreciated) Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, New Hampshire, displays more than a hundred of Lautrec's works and it's easily one of the best shows of the year.

Lautrec was born into an aristocratic family, but was beset by problems and ill health from the beginning. He broke one leg at age 13, the other at 14, and neither healed properly. This was blamed for the fact that he stopped growing, but the congenital condition that often bears his name is the more likely culprit. His parents were first cousins from a line of inner-bred families. Although Lautrec's head and torso were normally shaped, Lautrec topped out at 4'8" and his short legs and fingers are consistent with inherited forms of dwarfism. But even had he been of normal stature, Lautrec was not temperamentally suited for conventionality. By six he showed distaste for propriety and a precocious artistic ability for the painting, drawing, ceramics, and printmaking that consumed his remaining thirty years on earth. Later came drinking, prostitution, absinthe addiction, and failed flings in the commercial art realm. He left behind more than 5,000 drawings, around 1,000 oil and watercolor paintings, some 360 prints, and a smattering of objects and sculptures. 

Jane Avril
  The hyphenated "Toulouse" was an affected part of his last name; Lautrec assumed it after an 1887 exhibition in that French city. But it was the opening of the Moulin Rouge that had the greatest impact on his art. Lautrec spent his days among gays, lesbians, whores, the sporting crowd, and addicts such as himself before dying of alcoholism and syphilis at age 36. There were few better at presenting the allure and horrors of debauchery than he. But just because Lautrec indulged in Parisian lowlife didn't make him uncaring. As the Currier exhibition shows, Lautrec's sympathies lay with the prostitutes, can-can girls, and entertainers, not their clients. His favorite models included bombastic cabaret singer Aristide Bruant, the clown Cha-U-Kao, comic actress Yvette Guilbert, and can-can dancer Jane Avril. He also adored the prostitutes and often showed them in candid moments: in the bath, lesbian lovers embracing, dressing, dancing, combing their hair…

Shadowy predator?
The term "male gaze" wasn't invented until 1975, but Lautrec understood it and his compositions suggest he was disgusted by it. He often displays female escorts and prostitutes in full color and/or detail, but reduces the older bourgeois men to silhouette shadow, or parody. Sometimes he uses salacious poses to call attention to what the male gaze is really about, not what it pretends to be. 

Eros Vanquished

Lautrec also had a sharp critique of social conventions of all sort. What else is one of make of the suggestive cover for Catalogue d'affiches artistiques (Catalog of Artistic Posters)?  Of plunging necklines and gratuitous crotch shots? Or his devastating Eros Vanquished? Or his wicked depiction of a an early automobile driver—a pursuit of the wealthy at the time of his death—in which the driver looks like as if he lifted images of a maniacal anarchist and put him in a car jacket.

His irreverence and humor partly explain why Lautrec never made much money with commercial art and most of his prints adorned small magazines or the dance halls and bars he frequented. His was a tragic life, but what a trove of treasures he bequeathed us.I highly recommend seeing these prints from the Museum of Modern Art in Manchester, as MoMA seldom has this many on display at one time.

Rob Weir

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