February 2013

Arts & Letters

Toulouse-Lautrec

By Patrick Hartigan
Toulouse-Lautrec, National Gallery of Australia, Until 2 April 2013
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.

From the front page

Image of Joseph Engel and Sara Montpetit in Falcon Lake, directed by Charlotte Le Bon. Photo by Fred Gervais, courtesy of MK2 and Metafilms

Cannes Film Festival 2022 highlights: part one

Mia Hansen-Løve’s ‘One Fine Morning’, Charlotte Le Bon’s ‘Falcon Lake’ and Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk’s ‘Pamfir’ were bright spots in an otherwise underwhelming line-up

Image of a man updating a board showing a tally of votes during independent candidate Zoe Daniel’s reception for the 2022 federal election. Image © Joel Carrett / AAP Images

The art of the teal

Amid the long decline of the major parties, have independents finally solved the problem of lopsided campaign financing laws?

Image of Monique Ryan and family on election night

The end of Liberal reign in Kooyong

At the Auburn Hotel on election night, hope coalesces around Monique Ryan

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

OnlyFans and the adults in the room

The emerging OnlyFans community offering training and support to adult-content creators

In This Issue

Black Saturday, Kinglake. © Dean Sewell / Oculi

Next Time

The lessons and literature of Black Saturday

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

An expatriate returns

Canberra, ca. 1915. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia

Growing pains

The nation’s capital turns 100

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Australia II and Liberty


More in Arts & Letters

Image of Steve Toltz

The quip and the dead: Steve Toltz’s ‘Here Goes Nothing’

A bleakly satirical look at death and the afterlife from the wisecracking author of ‘A Fraction of the Whole’

Detail of cover of Simon Tedeschi’s ‘Fugitive’

Ghost notes: Simon Tedeschi’s ‘Fugitive’

A virtuoso memoir of music and trauma, and his experiences as a child prodigy, from the acclaimed Australian pianist

Still from ‘Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood’

One small step: ‘Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood’ and ‘Deep Water’

Richard Linklater’s rotoscoped film evokes the optimism of late-1960s America, while Patricia Highsmith’s thriller gets another disappointing adaptation

Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori, ‘Dibirdibi country’ (2008

Art heist: The landmark conviction of an Aboriginal art centre’s manager

The jailing of Mornington Island Art’s chief executive for dishonest dealing has shone a light on ethics and colonialism in the Indigenous art world


More in Noted

Cover of Robert Lukins’ ‘Loveland’

‘Loveland’

Robert Lukins’ second novel takes a Brisbane woman to Nebraska, where an inheritance sparks a change in character as well as in fortune

Still from ‘We Own This City’

‘We Own This City’

David Simon, creator of ‘The Wire’, returns to Baltimore for a present-day examination of rapacious police corruption

Still from ‘Slow Horses’

‘Slow Horses’

A sardonic Gary Oldman heads a misfit branch of MI5 in Apple TV+’s thrilling exploration of personal motivation and political expedience

Image from ‘The Golden Cockerel’

‘The Golden Cockerel’

Barrie Kosky’s Adelaide production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera satirising the Russo-Japanese War came with uneasy resonances


Online exclusives

Image of Joseph Engel and Sara Montpetit in Falcon Lake, directed by Charlotte Le Bon. Photo by Fred Gervais, courtesy of MK2 and Metafilms

Cannes Film Festival 2022 highlights: part one

Mia Hansen-Løve’s ‘One Fine Morning’, Charlotte Le Bon’s ‘Falcon Lake’ and Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk’s ‘Pamfir’ were bright spots in an otherwise underwhelming line-up

Image of a man updating a board showing a tally of votes during independent candidate Zoe Daniel’s reception for the 2022 federal election. Image © Joel Carrett / AAP Images

The art of the teal

Amid the long decline of the major parties, have independents finally solved the problem of lopsided campaign financing laws?

Image of Monique Ryan and family on election night

The end of Liberal reign in Kooyong

At the Auburn Hotel on election night, hope coalesces around Monique Ryan

Image of US President Joe Biden meeting virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, November 15, 2021. Image © Susan Walsh / AP Photo

The avoidable war

Kevin Rudd on China, the US and the forces of history