Friday, December 04, 2015

An Outcasts View of Paris

“I paint things as they are. I don't comment. I record.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Although best known for his posters advertising Parisian nightlife the 19th Century artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was an artist who depicted the outcasts of polite society with an honesty that today would see him labeled as a feminist.

As his friend and frequent model the cabaret dancer Jane Avril wrote about his relationships with prostitutes “They were his friends as well as his models. In his presence they were just women, and he treated them as equals.”

For Toulouse-Lautrec was as much an outcast as they, perhaps even more so having fallen from a greater height. With a body of a man on a child’s legs, the 4’ 11” Toulouse-Lautrec was the only son of a wealthy aristocratic family whose mother and father were first cousins; an inbreeding that is often blamed for his deformity.

Disinherited by his father, the count’s estranged wife supported her son for most of his short life with the artist reportedly dying in her arms at the age of 36 from tertiary syphilis and alcoholism.

For most of his adult life Toulouse-Lautrec lived in the working class Paris suburb of Montmartre that was known in the latter half of the 19th Century for its cafes and their bohemian clientele, its brothels and the Moulin Rouge situated on its outskirts.

But even there Toulouse-Lautrec was seen as being an outsider with his fellow student at the Leon Bonnet’s Studio, François Gauzi, saying “Lautrec is seen only as a midget . . . a drunken, vice-ridden court jester whose friends are pimps and girls from brothels.” 

But such was the power of Toulouse-Lautrec paintings of the world in which he lived that the Guardian Newspapers Jonathan Jones described him as “one of the most radical, raw and courageous of all modern artists…  There always have been two Toulouse-Lautrec’s. His posters glamourize sex and the city. They do it well. But the real greatness of his art is elsewhere, in his unvarnished, rough and tender portrayals of the true nature of the demi-monde he inhabited. Wild, savage dances, raw desire, aching loneliness and fragile intimacy make this other, less famous side of Toulouse-Lautrec far more significant.”

The exhibition Toulouse-Lautrec: The Budapest Arts Museum Collection is on show at Rome’s Museo dell'Ara Pacis until the 8th of May next year.


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