Starting in October, at the Grand Palais in Paris, a retrospective aimed at stripping the French artist of the cliché of the “painter of prostitutes” in order to finally give him the credit for having glimpsed in the worldliness of the Parisian nightlife the greatest metaphor of modern times.
His friends said that he would not live long. But he also knew this. He lived suspended between two worlds, that of the aristocracy, to which he belonged by birth, and that of the demi-monde, where by choice he spent his adult life and which was the dominant subject of his art. This was Count Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, a man devoured by restlessness, who died at the age of 36, consumed by alcohol and syphilis.
In autumn, a retrospective dedicated to Toulouse-Lautrec promises to be a worthwhile event. It will open in Paris on October 9th and will draw to a close on January 27th, 2020. On display, there will not only be paintings and drawings but also advertising posters of which he was the genial precursor, as well as a selection from his correspondence. There are interesting the letters exchanged with his colleagues, Degas and Manet. The curators’ idea is to take the image of this artist known as the painter of prostitutes out of this stereotype, despite the fact that his letters confirm this notion, and show how he represented modern life through the new Parisian night that constituted a powerful metaphor.
The artist had serious health problems – dwarfism and bone fragility – which marked his life. However, he had a great vocation, painting. In 1882 at the age of 18, he moved to Paris. In those years, the city was teeming with artists, and the most innovative were the Impressionists who painted in a rapid, spotted manner without a preparatory drawing, a direct take of reality in natural light.
Henri was fascinated by this approach to painting, however even if his works seems to have the freshness of the instant in the impressionist manner, in reality they are the result of a careful study made up of sketches, sketches, colour tests and even photographs. Furthermore, unlike the Impressionists who love the landscape, he focused his attention on figures, and did so with a pungent and incisive style that they clearly lacked.
The image is built on a design that is fast and sure, made up of thick and energetic marks. The brush is often used as a pencil. In fact, he diluted the colour with which he then drew thin crossed or juxtaposed lines. The beige background of the canvas or cardboard often comes to the surface between one brushstroke and another – sometimes the colour is so transparent that you can see the drawing below. The way in which he frames the character are bold, likely due to his friend Degas, but also Japanese painting and photography.
Many other artists were attracted by the Parisian nightlife, but few looked beyond, “behind the scenes”. In fact, in 1892 Toulouse-Lautrec had taken up residence in an sort of brothel, and from this situation many works that portray moments of intimacy of the girls arose, when they took baths or put on stockings. His way of looking at things is lucid and attentive, restoring human dimension and dignity to women without a real story. There is no moralism or morbidity, rather human understanding for women on the fringes of life. In the end, this was also the life of the artist.
Even Degas had represented similar scenes, albeit with a distant look and highlighting the squalor. On the other hand, here we find emotional adherence, after all the Degas spent his money on them, while Henri actually lived with them.
Toulouse-Lautrec made use of numerous techniques: oil, pastels, watercolour, chalk and also lithography. As a matter of fact, his fame grew thanks to advertising posters that were then taking their first steps, where he managed to balance image and text in an innovative way. The way in which he transformed figures and words into decoration was quite modern, for example look at the crowd and characters often reduced to shape or unusual graphic font and repeated writings.
It would be impossible to pigeonhole him within the confines of a movement or in the painter of prostitutes – he was the artist of the negative aspects of progress. Even when he represented night life, the tones are not joyous, the serene atmosphere of the bourgeois amusements of a Renoir (Ballo al Moulin de la Galette) are quite distant. The world of incommunicability is staged, figures rarely interact or laugh. Even in groups they don’t talk, sitting around a table or lying on sofas, each figure is isolated.
Toulouse-Lautrec wanted to show modern life with its dark sides. Just how successful he was in doing so is the aim of this interesting exhibit.
Anna Maria Calabretta