“I have always been a pencil,” Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec once said, likening himself to an instrument especially good for recording the quick, honest impression. He was not one to belabor and idealize; life around him in fin de siecle Paris moved too quickly for that.
Modernity had arrived, and with it “the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent,” wrote Baudelaire in the 1860s. The painter of modern life, he wrote, devotes himself to seizing that ever-shifting reality. Lautrec grasped at it with a hunger and curiosity, freezing slices of life, framing fleeting expressions. He was as much a camera as a pencil, for the camera was the modern man’s tool for describing the world.
Over 100 works by Lautrec go on view today at the San Diego Museum of Art. The Baldwin M. Baldwin Collection, made up mostly of lithographs, was donated to the museum last year after a long and fruitful courtship. The museum’s elegant installation evokes the mood of the era through enlarged period photographs, music written by one of Lautrec’s favorite subjects, the entertainer Aristide Bruant, and a slightly disjointed video made mostly from turn-of-the-century footage.
This smattering of historical context helps explain the origins of Lautrec’s work, and especially comes in handy for understanding his advertising posters, which were intended primarily for street-side display but have evolved, in the past 100 years, into precious art objects.
The collection has its share of gems and its breadth does justice to Lautrec’s protean output. It draws its cohesion from the concentration of works documenting the artist’s immersion in the coarse new forms of popular entertainment, the cafe concert and the dance hall.
The aristocratic-born Lautrec (1864-1901) was a dwarf (purportedly the result of family inbreeding) and was necessarily shut out of the normal leisure pursuits of his class, hunting and riding. His gravitation to the seedier side of Parisian life signaled a rebellious spirit. Once inside, his images spoke the same adventurous language.
Like a generation of artists before him, Lautrec rejected his academic training and adopted instead the radical new vocabulary of modern art: the seemingly casual command of a picture’s edges that was typical of photographic vision, and the flattening out of space through the use of broad masses of color, outlines and unconventional perspectives that borrowed dearly from the Japanese woodblock prints that were all the rage in France at the time.
Lautrec often carried such formal devices to outrageous extremes. In his first poster for the Moulin Rouge in 1891, the performers’ space appears so compressed and flattened that the star’s lifted leg seems to jut straight into her partner’s nose even though they are yards apart.
In his poster advertising the dancer Jane Avril, Lautrec shows the weighty influence of Edgar Degas. He uses the scrolled head of the contrabass--a common motif in Degas’s paintings of cafe concert life--and its player to anchor his image. A line trailing from the instrument becomes a frame for the dancer, who performs on a broad, receding expanse of stage much like those upon which Degas scattered his ballet dancers.
Lautrec may not have invented these new forms of representation, but he excelled at distilling them and enhancing their graphic punch. His palette was narrow, his drawing methods minimal, but the optical impact of these prints was enough to draw eyes away from the competing street scene.
Lautrec was not only a witness to the raucous pleasures of the cafe concerts , he indulged in them himself, and his prints thrust us into these scenes as equal participants. While he had a tendency toward caricature, his gaze is generally sympathetic. Unlike his peer, the popular poster designer Jules Cheret, Lautrec never imposed an air of false gaiety on the crowd or the entertainers he portrayed. Few of Lautrec’s subjects, whether singers, dancers, actors, actresses or customers, ever smile, much less exude the bubbly vivaciousness of Cheret’s models.
People flocked to the cafe concerts (there were almost 300 in Paris by the turn of the century), but they seemed to enjoy losing themselves in the crowd as much as they savored the vulgar entertainment. Both patrons and performers bear bemused or hollow gazes in most of Lautrec’s work on this theme, a testament to the artist’s unidealizing hand and a symptom of what one 19th-Century commentator on the cafe concert scene called the “sadness at the bottom of it, that flat and eloquent sadness we call ennui.”
Lautrec never glamorized his subjects, not even when he produced a series of lithographs of prostitutes, called “Elles” (Them). In the brothels, Lautrec could be an invisible observer, for he lodged in them from time to time and was on familiar terms with their inhabitants.
He indulged in the prostitutes’ services, as he indulged in the vices offered by the cafes, but he portrayed them less as sexual objects than as working women in their daily routines of sleeping, bathing, dressing, grooming and wearily retiring. In this series, as in a great deal of his work outside of the posters, Lautrec acts as illustrator more than interpreter. The images are sensitive, but more compelling sociologically than visually.
The verve of Lautrec’s gutsiest work burned out, as he did, after about a dozen highly productive years. A mental breakdown and years of alcoholism sapped his creative powers, turning his previously fluid lines into nervous and skittish marks, as seen in several portraits of actors and actresses from 1898.
From Lautrec’s youthful sketches of horses to these spent efforts, the Baldwin Collection offers a fascinating view of a fleeting life and its diary of fleeting images.
The show, which was supported by a grant from the Allied-Signal West Foundation, continues through Dec. 31, and is accompanied by a comprehensive catalogue with excellent color reproductions.