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More than art's poster boy

Toulouse-Lautrec, often portrayed as just a tragic Parisian bonhomme, was an innovative artist who influenced color lithography and advertising.

LENNIE BENNETT
Published November 16, 2003

TAMPA - There's something about bohemian Paris in the last decades of the 19th century that invites oversimplification. Such sad glamor. Such heroic romanticism. Get out your handkerchiefs and rent John Huston's awful 1952 Moulin Rouge. (Zsa Zsa Gabor as Jane Avril? Please.) Or the newer, better one with a tubercular Nicole Kidman. And appreciate poor Jose Ferrer, who in 1952 had to hobble on his knees to portray the movie's most famous character, artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, long before the time when computer wizardry could digitally shorten John Leguizamo for the part.

Toulouse-Lautrec's physical stature aside, treatments such as these are diminishing to the man, turning him into a melancholy dissolute who wanders the nighttime streets of Montmartre, drinking too much and consorting with prostitutes because he believes the women he yearns for can't love a short man. (Now cue the award-winning Mary Tyler Moore Show episode "Toulouse-Lautrec Is One of My Favorite Artists," about her short-guy date.)

And incidentally, when Toulouse-Lautrec wasn't carousing or pining, didn't he do a few cool posters?

That's all very easy on the brain, but it's neither true enough nor interesting enough for Toulouse-Lautrec.

"Toulouse-Lautrec: Master of the Moulin Rouge" at the Tampa Museum of Art shows us how these reductive interpretations happen and why they should not.

Forty-five examples of printmaking by Toulouse-Lautrec line the gallery walls, the famous lithographic posters along with the more complex fine art lithographs. Included in the show are 30 by some of his peers, including those by famous names such as Bonnard and Vuillard, but it's clear who the star is here.

The economy of line and the limited palette Toulouse-Lautrec chose to illustrate the characters who performed at and frequented cafes and cabarets such as the Moulin Rouge are so accessible, so easy to take in at a glance, so familiar. We find the work immediately knowable, or think we do.

Toulouse-Lautrec was born Nov. 24, 1864, into an aristocratic family that over the generations had married mostly among itself (his father and mother were first cousins), producing progeny who tended to have physical and mental problems associated with inbreeding. Young Toulouse-Lautrec was sickly. At 13 he broke one leg, at 14 the other, and he was diagnosed with a hereditary bone disease. Neither leg healed properly, and both stopped growing. His height remained just over 5 feet for the rest of his life. He was a disappointment to his dashing father, Count Alphonse, who loved horses and hunting; his mother, Countess Adele, was overprotective to the point of suffocation.

He showed an early talent for drawing and painting, and when he was 18, his family arranged for instruction with a fashionable, unremarkable Parisian artist. Toulouse-Lautrec learned the conventions of salon painting, but by the time he was 23, he had begun to cut the close bonds with his family. He struck out artistically with a like-minded group of young artists who had more affinity for impressionist painters than the academics.

Toulouse-Lautrec's preferred medium before 1890 was painting, and he continued to paint fine work throughout his life, though none is on view in this exhibition. But color lithography, a new printmaking process, was the medium that made him famous and one to which he introduced innovations, such as spattering paint with a toothbrush to create the smoky atmosphere of nightclubs.

The process is based on the principle that oil and water don't mix. A drawing is made with grease chalk onto a stone that is then moistened. When ink is applied, it sticks to the drawing but not the stone, and those inked areas are transferred to paper. Each color requires a different stone and a separate pass through the press. Many of Toulouse-Lautrec's lithographs are called posters, a pejorative word today, usually referring to mass-produced, inferior photographic reproductions of famous paintings, sunsets or cute puppies, accompanied by inspirational quips. Lithographs are multiples, too, but in much smaller editions, and because each print is individually made, they can be considered originals of a kind. In the artist's day, the term "poster" lithographs referred to only their large size.

Toulouse-Lautrec's greatest poster was also his first, an advertisement for the Moulin Rouge executed in 1891, Moulin Rouge - La Goulue. It was so arresting, so novel and effective, it stopped traffic and became an immediate collectors item. Despite its appearance of spontaneity, Toulouse-Lautrec didn't dash it off. Surviving sketches and studies (not included in this exhibition) indicate his elaborate preparations before the final version. That was true of all his art. Generally, its excellence lies in the artist's understanding of what an advertising poster should do and how it ought to be done.

It's great for several specific reasons, too. It's huge in size, actually printed on three sheets of paper that have been pasted together. He used only primary red, yellow and blue, with black and white for outlines and silhouettes. The artist was greatly influenced by Japanese prints (which he saw on view in Paris), appropriating their compositional tendency to cut away figures into the edges of the print and use strong diagonal lines to split the image into planes defined by the simple colors.

Toulouse-Lautrec did something revolutionary in the subject matter. Instead of depicting generic performers commonly used for such promotions, he used real stars: La Goulue, "the Glutton," so-named for, among other, more unsavory things, her habit of downing drinks in a single gulp; and Valentin Le Desosse, "the Double-Jointed," her dance partner. He is a shadowy combination of blue and red in the foreground, pointing our eyes to La Goulue's red-stockinged legs thrust out from her petticoat, the center of the picture, a startling patch of unpainted white paper. In its linear flatness and bold color fields, the work is almost abstract, yet it captures the essence of the Moulin Rouge. If his visual language was new, it was nevertheless universally understood.

Toulouse-Lautrec incorporated other influences, such as the art deco curve of a bass violin's neck, elongated to frame another of his favorite dancers, for Jane Avril at the Jardin de Paris. Those bags of tricks served him well, too, in a poster advertising a book, Queen of Joy, in which he once again split the plane with a broad diagonal, the line of a table at which sit an older man and a younger woman in a passionless (but we can assume mutually beneficial) embrace. They, too, are reduced to blocks of color, his black-suited arm reaching into her red dress. On the table sits an art deco pitcher, its curvy spout mimicking the woman's figure and pointing to a heraldic shield, no doubt the man's, on a plate. The artist packed a lot of innuendo and irony into such a cleanly conceived illustration.

Toulouse-Lautrec's commercial work included projects such as covers for the influential journal La Revue blanche. One of them is a portrait of Misia Natanson, the aristocratic young wife of its owner, produced in 1895. Compare it with Bonnard's portrait a year earlier and see how differently the artists interpreted her. To Toulouse-Lautrec she is more elusive muse than saucy beauty, her pale face distanced from us by a veil and a fur stole. She sways gracefully, leaning at an angle. He outlines her face in the green of her coat, less stark than black or red, which is more customary for him. It's an homage to her elegance and her distinction from the women of the Montmartre.

Along with his hereditary illness, Toulouse-Lautrec had syphilis and was an alcoholic, both of which hastened his death, in 1901, before his 36th birthday. He died a popular artist but not a respected one. Only reluctantly did the Louvre accept one of his paintings from his family in 1902. His reputation improved in 1922 when the Musee Toulouse-Lautrec opened near his ancestral home in Albi. But he was and is overshadowed by others of his generation: Van Gogh, Cezanne, Gauguin. He possessed a lesser light, yet Toulouse-Lautrec shined it in a way unseen before. Or, unless you count all those "posters" of his work on apartment walls, since.

Review

"Toulouse-Lautrec: Master of the Moulin Rouge" at the Tampa Museum of Art, 600 N Ashley Drive, Tampa, through Jan. 11. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. $7 adults, $6 age 62 and older, $3 students with ID and children over 6, free under 6. (813) 274-8130.

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