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
View Edition

From the front page

Image of Lieutenant General John Frewen. Image via ABC News Breakfast

The back of the back of the queue

Young people have waited patiently through the government’s slow rollout, but it’s now killing them

Image of Scott Morrison holding a vial of AstraZeneca vaccine. Image via Facebook

Vaccine resistance

Despite historically high vaccination rates, Australia has developed a significant anti-vax movement in the middle of a global pandemic

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Racing against time

The I-Kiribati Olympic sprinter hoping to draw attention to his nation’s climate catastrophe

Image of Julian Assange in London, April 11, 2019

The end game

WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange is slowly dying in a UK prison, as the US maintains its fight to have him die in theirs – but there is hope


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

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Time remaining

New poetry from the award-winning writer and critic

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, ‘Portrait of Irène Cahen d’Anvers’ (La petite Irène), 1880

Breathless spaces: ‘The House of Fragile Things’

James McAuley’s examination of four great art-collecting families and the French anti-Semitism that brought their downfall

Image from ‘Shiva Baby’

Forebodings and a funeral: ‘Shiva Baby’

Emma Seligman’s funny but tense film is a triumph of writing and performance over spectacle

Image of Suzanne Ciani

Tip of the pops: ‘This Is Pop’ and ‘Song Exploder’

Two Netflix documentary series only manage to skim the surface of pop music history


More in Noted

Image of Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, ‘A way of flying’ (c. 1819–1824)

Goya: Drawings from the Prado Museum

Goya’s dark and difficult works exhibited at NGV remind us how little the world has moved on from past horrors

Image of Carlo Crivelli, ‘Madonna and Child’ (1480).

European Masterpieces from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

QAGOMA’s exhibition goes beyond the usual blockbuster bling to favour lesser known works of the masters

Cover of ‘The Five Wounds’

‘The Five Wounds’ by Kirstin Valdez Quade

A young down-and-out man in a New Mexico village seeks transcendence in a ceremonial role as Jesus, in this debut novel

Image of Richard Bell’s ‘Embassy’, 2013

‘Richard Bell: You Can Go Now’

The MCA’s retrospective of the influential activist-artist provides a fluent deconstruction of white supremacy


Read on

Image of Scott Morrison holding a vial of AstraZeneca vaccine. Image via Facebook

Vaccine resistance

Despite historically high vaccination rates, Australia has developed a significant anti-vax movement in the middle of a global pandemic

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Jenny Morrison laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier during the Anzac Day commemorative service on April 25, 2020. Image © Alex Ellinghausen / AAP Image/ Sydney Morning Herald Pool

A rallying crime

For a country that loves invoking the virtues of wartime sacrifice, why have our leaders failed to appeal to the greater good during the pandemic?

Photo of installation view of the exhibition Camille Henrot: Is Today Tomorrow at NGV International. Photo © Tom Ross

Simultaneous persuasions: ‘Camille Henrot: Is Today Tomorrow’

Radical difference and radical proximity are hallmarks of the French-born artist’s NGV exhibition

Still from The White Lotus. © Mario Perez / HBO

Petty bourgeoisie: ‘The White Lotus’

Mike White’s scathing takedown of privilege leads July’s streaming highlights