Toulouse-Lautrec: Belle Époque Paris

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“The Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec: Prints and Posters,” the Museum of Modern Art’s first exhibition of the artist’s work in nearly 30 years, consists of nearly 100 works on paper drawn from the permanent collection. I hurry on down. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) had the bad luck of being born into an aristocratic family going through hard times.

It was a family in which there had been a good deal of in-breeding. His parents were first cousins, and Henri—the apple of his mother's eye—was a sickly child who had the misfortune of breaking both of his legs in separate accidents within a single year. The fractures never healed properly and when fully grown, Henri measured four feet, eleven and would walk with a cane for the rest of his life.

Adding to this disability, his nose and lips were overly large for his face. None of which seems to have hurt him with the ladies, at least not with the performers and prostitutes who frequented the cafés and dance-halls. But to him it did not matter whether these women were well-born or from the lower classes, he portrayed them all with a sympathetic brush. What's odd is that Henri, no matter what his late night escapades, continued to dine each evening throughout his life with his mother.

Entering MoMA from West 54th Street, there are no lines this morning, and when I ask about a timed-ticket for the Matisse Cut-Outs, I’m told the wait is a little more than an hour. Not bad. But I request a later hour, knowing that between shows I’d like to have lunch at the museum. If not at  'The Modern,' overlooking the garden, then at its sidekick—'Modern Lite'—where they have smaller plates and smaller tabs.

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The show is a delightful surprise on a number of counts. Entering the exhibition one comes face-to face with the famous poster of Aristide Bruant, a successful French cabaret singer and nightclub owner, wearing an eye-catching red scarf.

When viewing lithographs and posters, it’s important to get up close to the work to see better the sketchy lines as well as the bold strokes. Today that's not a problem as the rooms set aside for this exhibition are lightly populated, visitors moving easily from one work to another.

What's more, a consummately French touch, the rooms are dimly lit. I read somewhere that the city of Paris has 472 lighting engineers who spend their days strategically lighting every street and boulevard to best effect. It's no wonder Paris looks so good. Strangely enough, the softer lighting in the gallery is having a quieting effect on the visitors moving in ghostly fashion from room to room.

At MoMA, this is about as tranquil as it get. Even so, I'm anticipating long lines on the sixth floor, with everyone eager to see the Matisse cutouts which I will tell you about next week.

I went hoping to see La Goulou ('the glutton') with her trademark low-cut dress and black velvet choker, as well as Jane Avril and a cadre of cancan dancers, and they're all here. What I did not expect were the ballet dancers, as exquisite and self-preoccupied as any by Degas or the laundress bending to her work, a drawing as thought-provoking as that by a young Picasso during his 'Blue' period. And there were representations of La Goulou and Jane Avril, two of the most popular performers of the day, but so much more.

The colorful posters and prints speak volumes about fin de siècle Paris, about the dance-halls, theaters, circuses and café-concerts that made Paris at the dawn of the 20th century “the city of entertainment.” That was a time when the lower classes mixed with “their betters,” when young girls from the provinces flocked to Paris, hoping to be performers on stage, only to end up as prostitutes.

Toulouse-Lautrec, a well-bred aristocrat, was besotted with these showgirls, performers and prostitutes, and he was not the the least judgmental about his subjects. Rather, he portrayed them in a matter-of-fact way, often with great tenderness. If there are any villains in his work, they’re the men—the café owners and the pompous dandies—not the women. But isn't the 'Queen of Joy' quite the hussy?

In the prints and posters, Toulouse-Lautrec may have been influenced by the Japanese woodblock prints circulating in Paris at that time. Unlike the European artists who worked with oil-based paints, the Japanese artists were the using water-based paints, which accounts for the vivid colors.

But to think that 150 years later, we are still engaging with these posters. Still  smitten by the bold shapes and frothy lines, by the vivid colors and energy expressed in so few lines. And by that remarkable talent who captured the zeitgeist of his time.

To understand Belle Époque Paris, one could do worse than to study the drawings of Toulouse-Lautrec. But, sadly, in the end, alcoholism and syphilis would be his death. That said, thanks to a strong work ethic he left behind a tremendous body of work of more than 700 prints and lithographs and paintings.

Running late, I will leave the Matisse cutouts for another day.  Do you find these prints as charming as I do?  Wouldn't it be fun to spend an evening at a cafe-concert in Montmartre? Let's drink to that!