August 03, 2014

"The Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec" @ MoMA

Think Belle Epoque Paris and what springs to mind?  Images of ladies wearing big hats sitting in a café?  The sound of can can music playing at the Moulin Rouge?  A faintly unsavory world of absinthe and smoke and seduction?  All of these portrayals would be an accurate reflection of a certain culture of the time, an atmosphere that has been ingrained in our modern perception largely through the posters and prints of one predominant illustrator, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Indeed the work of Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) has truly come to symbolize life in the City of Lights at the turn of the century.  Aristocratic by birth, but a bit of an outcast due to physical deformity and a proclivity to drink, Toulouse-Lautrec was a habitué of the almost seedy night life that he depicted so vibrantly in his art.  His fascination with the demimonde - the world of café-concerts, circus, dance halls and cabarets - and his political, literary, artistic and social connections came together brilliantly through the medium of color lithography.

"Reine de joie (Queen of Joy)", 1882

The genius of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's snapshots of Belle Epoque Paris can now be seen in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.  Drawn almost entirely from MoMA's extensive holdings, "The Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec" presents over 100 superb examples of the kind of posters, lithographs, illustrated books, programs and ephemera for which he is so well known.  

"Le Loge au mascaron doré (The Box with the Gilded Mask)"
Program for "Le Missionaire", 1894

The show is divided thematically into five sections that illustrate the Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec.  It opens with a look into the world of the café-concerts and dance halls where, for the first time, men and women could go together for a drink and a show.  These were an entirely new venue for Parisian night life and were wildly popular.  Toulouse-Lautrec was a regular patron and he became very close with many of the performers in the locales.  His muses included the clown Cha-U-Kao, the dancers La Goulue and Loïe Fuller, the actress' Yvette Guilbert and May Milton and especially Jane Avril whom he portrayed over and over both on-stage and off.

Which brings us to Toulouse-Lautrec's relationships with women, which were unusual to say the least.  Due to some congenital health issues (his parents were first cousins) and a couple of childhood accidents, Toulouse-Lautrec did not grow into a fully developed adult male.  His father left the family when he was young and his mother, a rather overbearing Catholic, was extremely protective of her only son.  Toulouse-Lautrec rebelled against his bourgeois upbringing by disappearing into the nightlife of Montmartre where he surrounded himself with writers and musicians as well as prostitutes, models and performers.  He must have been a non-threatening presence as these women allowed him into their inner sanctums and offered him true friendship.

"Femme en corset (Woman in corset)"
From the portfolio "Elles", 1896

It is this intimate familiarity with working women that is expressed in Toulouse-Lautrec's portrayals of their lives out of the public eye.  Images of women bathing, dressing and sipping a coffee are quite touching and show a very rarely exposed side of this segment of French society.  

The exhibition continues with a look at his relationship with the artistic community and presents several examples of works done in collaboration with authors, composers and printers.  Toulouse-Lautrec was a regular contributor to magazines and literary reviews and worked with his friends and colleagues to promote their books and shows.

Cover for "l'Estampe Originale", 1893

The last section is devoted to the City of Paris - a place the artist adored.  Although he was born and died in Albi, Toulouse-Lautrec considered Paris his home and he enjoyed every facet from the Bois de Boulogne to the racetrack at Longchamp to the ice skating rink at Gran Plaza de Toros.  Wasted by syphillis and his dependency on alcohol, Toulouse-Lautrec died a premature death at the age of 36.  It was a short but meteoric life and his legacy continues to this day we relive La Belle Epoque through the eyes of one of its greatest participants.  "The Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec", beautifully curated by Sarah Suzuki, remains on view until March 1, 2015.

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