[Paleopsych] WP: (Toulouse-Lautrec) Paris's Party Animal

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Paris's Party Animal

    Toulouse-Lautrec Delighted in the Demimonde

    By Paul Richard
    Special to The Washington Post
    Sunday, March 20, 2005; Page N01

    There's not much yellow sunshine in "Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre"
    at the National Gallery of Art. Its glow is greenish. That's partly
    the gaslight, partly the absinthe, and don't forget the queasiness of
    the morning-after dawn. This is a show about the club scene. It takes
    you out all night.

    There are many oils, posters, prints and party invitations (one
    suggests you check your fig leaf at the door), 10 connected rooms and
    250 pictures of dance halls, nightclubs, bars, circuses and brothels,
    and the people who hang out in them: artists, drinkers, gawking
    tourists, whores. The show sweeps you back in time up the steep
    streets of Montmartre, to the hottest spots in Paris, where women are
    available and getting stoned is easy and dancing girls kick high.

    The atmosphere is charged with showbiz glamor, lust, bohemian license,
    art, scruffiness and slumming. You are not far from the thug life. You
    meet a lot of painters. Bearded Vincent van Gogh is drinking in the
    corner; he has four works in the show. Young Pablo Picasso, who has
    five, is up from Barcelona. There's Finland's Eero Järnefelt. Erik
    Satie is on piano. You get to go behind the scenes -- Santiago Rusiñol
    takes you to the kitchen of the Moulin de la Gallette -- and every now
    and then you run into old masters, Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, men who
    understood Montmartre before it got hot.

    Their pictures aren't alike. It's not style that connects these men --
    there are 50 in the show -- but a preference for Montmartre and for
    living on the edge. The place is rife with painters. They drive each
    other on. One of the most gifted -- Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
    (1864-1901), is your sharp-eyed constant guide.

    Everybody knows him. He's pretty unmistakable. Lautrec is under five
    feet tall. His torso is a normal size, but his brittle, often-broken
    legs are as spindly as a boy's. His gait may be unsteady (his walking
    stick is hollow, he keeps it filled with booze), but his manners are
    delightful and his banter is exquisite. The man is an aristocrat, but
    his lips are red and bulbous, and he drools.

    Unlike his cousins he couldn't ride to hounds. That sort of life was
    closed to him. But Montmartre's was wide open. Had he not been so odd,
    he might have been dismissed as yet another well-bred youth going
    down, but here, among bohemians, where hierarchies of class and taste
    were overturned with glee, his deformities promoted him. He wore them
    like a badge.

    As he hobbled up the cobbles to the Moulin Rouge or the Moulin de la
    Galette, the Chat Noir or the Mirliton, Lautrec blazed a trail. When
    Bob Dylan left his home town of Hibbing, Minn., to go to Greenwich
    Village, or Packards from Park Avenue purred up to the Cotton Club,
    they were treading the same path.

    Lautrec was very good. He was fabulous at faces, and at body language,
    too. His eerie skill for capturing a likeness, swiftly,
    empathetically, still seems a sort of miracle. His drawing and his
    painting aren't separate, they're one. And he was heroically
    productive. Lots of wild people get over the club scene, but he
    didn't, and it killed him. By the age of 33, when he went to the
    asylum, he was pretty much a ruin, a paranoid, forgetful, syphilitic
    drunk, drawing creepy circus scenes for the doctors. Yet he'd managed
    to produce more than 700 canvases, 360 prints and thousands of sharp
    drawings. He has 140 pictures on display in this show.

    Their candor is terrific. "I do not spare the warts," he wrote, "and I
    enjoy adding the hairs that sprout from them."

    His painting style is not exceptionally original. The borrowed strands
    from which he wove it -- naturalist, impressionist, cartoony, Japanese
    -- are pretty clear to see. Lautrec is hardly shallow, but his oils,
    seen together, aren't as endless or as deep as those of Manet or Paul
    Cezanne. Purely as a painter he isn't quite there at the top with the
    grandest of French masters. What makes him so important, and also so
    prophetic, is something else about his art.

    Lautrec put it all together. To read his pictures rightly is to be as
    hip as he was. Beauty in his pictures is almost incidental. That's not
    what they're about. What they offer is a joining of rough new music,
    sex, mass-market promotions, avant-garde delirium, shocking truth,
    celebrity, decadence and dazzle. That potent combination fuels the art
    world still.

    One night in December 1891, 3,000 Toulouse-Lautrec lithographs were
    pasted up all over Paris. Part ad, part newspaper cartoon, part
    Japanese wood-block print, "Moulin Rouge: La Goulue" looked like
    nothing that Parisians had ever seen. La Goulue, "the glutton," was a
    young and supple dancer. Lautrec's flatly colored picture shows her on
    the dance floor. It is focused on her bloomers. La Goulue was known
    for kicking off the top hats of the gentlemen who neared her. Every
    now and then, to heighten the maneuver, she'd "forget" to wear her
    underpants. Lautrec's poster of her kicking made her famous, too.

    They did as much for singer Aristide Bruant. Burant glowered at his
    listeners. Often he insulted them. Burant half-talked the songs he
    wrote in a near-impenetrable streetwise Paris slang. Historian Richard
    Thomson, who with the museum's Philip Conisbee led the team of
    scholars that put the show together, says Bruant's voice suggests
    pre-electric Dylan's.

    Lautrec's posters made Bruant's costume -- the club, the tall black
    boots, the hat, the working man's black jacket, and the scarf, a
    bright blood red -- a sort of logo of the man.

    All the artist needed to summon Yvette Guilbert -- her poignancy, her
    fragility, her unforgettable stage presence -- was her trademark long
    black gloves.

    Slender, red-haired Jane Avril appears often in his lithographs. So
    does Loie Fuller, who danced with swirling cloths under changing
    colored lights. (The Fuller room that Mark Leithauser has designed for
    the exhibit brilliantly evokes her. Its colors shift continually.
    There's a movie of her, too.)

    Montmartre's performers welcomed Lautrec. He made them famous. Mary
    Weaver Chapin, writing in the catalogue, notes that he "developed what
    he called furias, intense obsessions, with certain performers who
    would enthrall him for a single season or several years." Lautrec, in
    his way, was a sort of proto-groupie. To truly make it on the club
    scene, to get close to the stars, you have to penetrate the circle and
    become part of the entourage. He understood that, too.

    No respect or seriousness is granted to the square world, much less to
    officialdom in the gallery's display. The politics of France had been
    hopeless for a century. Bourgeois respectability, overstuffed and
    stifling, wasn't more attractive. No wonder that so many people of all
    sorts were attracted to the club scene. It was the other side of the

    As museum shows and motel art testify together, late 19th-century
    French painting is what Americans like best. Too often what we're
    shown is anodyne in spirit -- shimmerings of color, shiverings of
    space, sunlight on fresh flowers, sunlight on fresh fruit, glintings
    on the Seine. This show is a corrective.

    The Chat Noir opened in Montmartre in 1882. Bruant's club, the
    Mirliton, closed in 1897. The intervening years are the period of the
    show. The world was getting modern. The Eiffel Tower (built in 1889)
    now ruled the Paris skyline. Electric lights were shining where once
    there had been gas lamps. Shoppers were exploring the extravagant
    department stores. The broad and stately avenues that Baron Haussmann
    had shoved through the old city made urban life in Paris increasingly

    They also made it easier for people of all classes to reach the
    windmills and the crooked streets and nightclubs of Montmartre.

    The girls wore floor-length skirts then, and complicated hats. Men
    affected toppers. But there is something at the core of
    "Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre" -- an attitude, a pulsing -- that
    feels as new as now.

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