February 2013

Arts & Letters

Toulouse-Lautrec

By Patrick Hartigan
National Gallery of Australia

Many years ago, on night-time walks down my street in inner-city Sydney, I used to see prostitutes through the open door of a terrace house: starkly lit women in their 50s and 60s, sitting around in lingerie amid the thick warm city air. Back home, propped on my windowsill, a postcard of a smudgy Toulouse-Lautrec monoprint talked to those glimpses of depravity with a fondness that has kept both brothel and postcard strikingly alive in my mind.

The details of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s short but significant career could easily be mistaken for the imagined realm of another artist: the drunken, aristocratic dwarf – a congenital condition almost certainly caused by the incestuous relationship of his first-cousin parents – devotedly rendering the underbelly of fin-de-siècle Paris. With a body ravaged by both disease and alcoholism, this robust painter and pioneering printmaker was dead by 37. Yet the scenes left behind by him probably account for a significant portion of our culture’s image of Paris; for every poster he created then, there are likely many millions of fridge magnets now.

Toulouse-Lautrec: Paris and the Moulin Rouge at the National Gallery of Australia – the first major exhibition of his work to be held in Australia – brings together an impressive selection of paintings, drawings, posters and prints. It is a fine opportunity to experience the scope of Toulouse-Lautrec’s work, from the able if academic early paintings to the tenderly observed and feathered ‘backstage’ brothel scenes (where he felt so at home that he lunched with the ladies) to the bold and vibrant graphics that ultimately elevated the poster into the realms of art, and, finally, several of his wonderfully rich late paintings.

The modestly scaled and executed brothel scenes are exceptional for their frank detail, terrific draughtsmanship and ability to navigate the tense space between a sketch and a painting. They show the women in uncompromisingly close, anything but clichéd, terms: eating, sleeping, washing or combing their hair; or, more brutally, in ‘Alone’ (1896) for example, as mere flesh expended among rumpled sheets.

On exiting the quietly empathised desperation of the brothel, you are confronted with what Thadée Natanson – the editor of the avant-garde journal La Revue blanche – referred to as the “fist in the face” impact of Toulouse-Lautrec’s first and largest poster of La Goulue (the glutton), a famous can-can dancer known as “the Queen of Montmartre”. Here we see Toulouse-Lautrec’s interest in Japanese woodblock printing married with an enthusiastic disregard for the conventions of pictorial composition; you come upon these dynamic compositions – with their hurling, heavily rouged, skirt-lifting characters – as if a metre from a stage. For in Toulouse-Lautrec’s world, tableau and stage are one and the same; the boundary between performer and spectator of little relevance to an artist so intoxicated by the simultaneous delights of both.

Patrick Hartigan
Patrick Hartigan is a Sydney-based artist.

Toulouse-Lautrec, National Gallery of Australia, Until 2 April 2013
Cover: February 2013

February 2013

From the front page

A stadium’s last stand

Arrogance. Vandalism. Victory. It’s the NSW disease

Image of ‘The Seventies’ by Michelle Arrow

Making the private public: ‘The Seventies’ by Michelle Arrow

This new history traces how the decade’s redefined politics shaped modern Australia

Image from ‘Destroyer’

Hell hath no fury: Karyn Kusama’s ‘Destroyer’

Nicole Kidman confronts in this LA crime thriller

‘Exploded View’ by Carrie Tiffany

This new novel is most striking in how it diverges from its predecessors


In This Issue

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Australia II and Liberty

Students sitting a selective school entrance exam. © Peter Rae / Fairfax Syndication

The secret life of them

What it takes to shift class in Australia

David Walsh. © Matthew Newton / Newspix

The gambler

At home with David Walsh

‘Inheritance’ by Balli Kaur Jaswal, Sleepers Publishing; $24.95

‘Inheritance’ by Balli Kaur Jaswal


More in Arts & Letters

Image of Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, 2010

Rats, heroes and Kevin Rudd’s ‘The PM Years’

This memoir answers some questions about his deposal and return but raises others

Image of Gerald Murnane

Tracking time: Gerald Murnane’s ‘A Season on Earth’

Forty years on, the author’s second novel is reunited with its lost half

Image of Matmos

Clicks, plinks, hoots and thuds: Matmos’s ‘Plastic Anniversary’

The American experimental duo embrace the ‘sounds’ of a ubiquitous material

A French Western? Jacques Audiard on ‘The Sisters Brothers’

The celebrated director explains how he made a Hollywood staple his own


More in Noted

‘Exploded View’ by Carrie Tiffany

This new novel is most striking in how it diverges from its predecessors

‘Zebra and Other Stories’ by Debra Adelaide

Difficult-to-grasp characters populate this new collection

The 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art at QAGOMA

Politics, culture and colour collide in Brisbane

Still from The Cry

ABC TV’s ‘The Cry’

This Scottish–Australian drama successfully subverts the missing-child genre


Read on

Image of ‘The Seventies’ by Michelle Arrow

Making the private public: ‘The Seventies’ by Michelle Arrow

This new history traces how the decade’s redefined politics shaped modern Australia

Image from ‘Destroyer’

Hell hath no fury: Karyn Kusama’s ‘Destroyer’

Nicole Kidman confronts in this LA crime thriller

Image from Hobart’s school strike for climate

The kids are alright

Climate-striking students have every right to protest

Image of Defence Minister Christopher Pyne

The Teflon Kingdom

Saudi Arabia is confident it can buy out the West, and Australia is happy to oblige


×
×