His famous images of the dancers at the Moulin Rouge and the other Parisian clubs of the day are instantly recognisable. Jane Avril and La Goulue, the two most famous and erotic dancers of the day, have survived in a million postcards and bedsitter posters. But their familiarity has also somehow undermined the value of his work. Great art is unique. So the fact that Lautrec’s lithographs can be reproduced hundreds of times, it seems, undermines their artistic value. Yet that is exactly what makes him such an important artist of the modern world.
Toulouse Lautrec was born to a wealthy aristocratic family in Albi, in southern France, in 1864. He was afflicted by a crippling genetic disease which prevented his legs from growing as the rest of his body did. Clearly it affected him psychologically, explaining his alcoholism and early death. That is a biographical detail. But since the tall actor José Ferrer played him on his knees the anecdote has dominated the story of his life – and obscured a fine artist. His contemporaries have made it into the art history books – Edgar Degas, James Whistler, Vincent Van Gogh. He knew them all and they regarded him as one of their circle. Van Gogh’s brother Theo sold his work.
So why the neglect? Is it the subject matter?
Lautrec left Albi for Paris when he was 18 to study art. Like other students he began by imitating the impressionists in his portraits and landscapes. But his work very quickly changed, and not just because he spent increasing amounts of time in the bars and clubs of the city. The Moulin Rouge, the most famous of the clubs (sometimes called “divans”), opened in 1889, as bohemian Paris grew in the erotic underworld of provocative dance. But the clubs were also meeting places for radicals and malcontents. Aristide Bruant, whose dark portrait is an iconic Lautrec image, was a singer whose songs were scathing attacks on bourgeois Paris. It was as if the Commune had gone underground. Lautrec was linked to the magazine La Révue Blanche, which printed his drawings; the journal would later defend Alfred Dreyfus against the combined columns of the French establishment.
Lautrec was not the little bloke in the corner gazing at the dancers and knocking back the absinthe. He was a well known artist on the Paris scene, respected not only by critics and fellow artists but also by the people who occupied this world of half-light, the “demi-monde” where Lautrec lived and worked.
Lautrec’s portraits of these people are loving and humane. The series called “Elles” represents prostitutes at their work. “Woman in a Corset” stands dressing, or undressing, with her back to us, and the client staring emotionless at her. There are erotic prints on the walls of her room – but the picture expresses powerfully the cold commercial reality of the relationship. The many other portraits of prostitutes show them sitting, lying, weary, cross-legged on the floor. But unlike Degas, who taught him much of what he knew, Lautrec’s women are painted with sympathy and tenderness and a kind of identification. The wealthy Degas, on the other hand, painted ballet dancers in awkward and ugly postures with unmistakable misogyny.
The women at the Salon of the Rue des Moulins are pictured waiting, or perhaps at the end of a night; they may be speaking or sitting in silence, but there is a sense of their solidarity.
Lautrec was a painter, but he was an artist in what Walter Benjamin called “the age of mechanical reproduction”. There is an urgency in his technique, lines drawn at speed for a fast and changing world. That pace, the powerful sense of movement, the feeling of the spectator who sees but is also part of what he sees, is daring and modern. It has more to do with the Expressionist cinema of the 1920s and the photographs of Walker Evans than with the painters of the Grands Salons. Lautrec portrays those who live on the margins, just as he did. And he does so in the idiom of a modern age, the era of La Goulue and Jane Avril, of the shopping arcades where the bourgeoisie bought the latest consumer goods, of the underground bars of Montmartre. It is our own world, which is why we still know them so well.
In 1889 Lautrec was invited to exhibit at the Royal Aquarium in London. While he was there Whistler introduced him to Oscar Wilde. It is hard not to imagine that they got on well.
Lautrec died in 1901 after several weeks of horrifying delirium tremens. Yet what we are left with does not express the sadness of his life, but a joyful celebration of human resilience.
Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery has a small, well presented exhibition of Lautrec prints and posters. It’s free and runs till 10 August 2010.
Women between revolution and counter-revolution
Animated film retells Anne Frank’s story
A pick of the highlights