February 2013

Arts & Letters


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
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